April 15, 1947 doesn’t mean much to people outside of the game of baseball. In fact, many baseball fans don’t know the significance of that day. But that is the day that the Brooklyn Dodgers started one Jackie Robinson at first base. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the first African American to start in Major League Baseball in the modern era. Jackie Robinson was a very good baseball player. When most odds were against him, he succeeded by taking his talents and developing them through hard work and consistent practice. I don’t pretend to be an authority on Jackie Robinson, but what I do know gives me pause to think that perhaps he is one of the best athletes in our nation’s history. While attending UCLA, he lettered in 4 NCAA sports: football, baseball, basketball and track. His courage and willingness to withstand the racial abuses brought an end to 60 years of discrimination in Major League Baseball based solely on a man’s color. One thing is sure, he was honest and full of integrity. He displayed a commitment to his values that served him well when he needed them most.
February 11, 2015 doesn’t mean much to most people outside of the game of baseball either. However, it’s the day CBS Chicago ran the story that the Jackie Robinson Little League team was stripped of its national title. I can’t help but wonder how Jackie would feel about having a team named after him disciplined and forced to forfeit their wins. The article, of course, blames the parents and the organization's leadership and not the kids, but here’s the thing: the kids were old enough to know better. To say that you are punishing the kids for the adult behavior is only part of the story. I coach a Boys and Girls Club basketball team that allows for 1 hour per week of practice and 1 game per week. Some of the teams in the league practice more than once a week and more than 1 hour per practice. Even though they are 8 and 9 years olds -which is younger than the Jackie Robinson Little League team- the kids know the rules are being skirted. I think the young men on the team are smart enough to know that there were kids on their team that were from the wrong geographic area and that the team was stacked for an advantage. I think that if Jackie were a kid on that team he would have said something to the leadership. I can’t prove it, but his character suggests he would.
I am not excusing the leadership; they violated the rules and could have stopped it at any time and didn’t. But values start early. If we as a society want to end some of the discrimination, bigotry and cheating, we have to set clear values, communicate those values and then back it up with actions that demonstrate our stated values are more than just goals. If this mistake was honest and they didn’t know, once the leadership found out, they should have self-reported it and removed the kids. But since they didn’t, I think we have to assume they knew and just forged ahead because they thought the cheating would help them win. The values that were violated were many, and the kids on the team probably had a sense they were not all on the up and up and just did it because the adults let them. I cannot believe that 12-year-olds did not know they were pushing the rules as a team. The “adults” probably insisted that it was ok, but they missed a perfect opportunity to instruct a group of kids on living according to values. "Win at all cost" exists in our culture and in most cultures, but I believe that Jackie Robinson would have said something. I believe that the leadership of the league, the team coaches and the team as a whole were responsible and knew what they were doing- and by doing so actually lived a value that fairness and equality really don’t matter. The team comes from a region that understands discrimination, but actually practiced the very thing they claim to despise. Their cheating is very discriminatory towards those who didn’t cheat, and I for one feel bad that the great Jackie Robinson’s name was attached to this mess.
The Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics starts from a place of values. What are yours? Don’t know? We can help!