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Keith Strudler: Little League

Life is confusing. I’m not talking about things like taxes or un-assembled furniture, which are offensively so. I’m talking about the daily quandaries, like whether gambling should be legal, or whether you should let your kids play with water guns. By all estimations, life is lived largely outside the lines, in the greys that color your daily existence.

Here’s another one. Should you watch the Little League World Series? For the most part, I’ve considered this fairly simple. My answer was no, and for all the stereotypical reasons. It felt like exploitation, seemed to overemphasize the value of winning, and it encouraged adults to take on inherently abusive roles in prematurely turning kids into adults. I didn’t watch the Little League World Series for the same reason I don’t watch kids’ beauty pageants, even if I know many reasonable people who like both.

Of course, that hasn’t kept me from putting my own kids into youth sports, including baseball. And my oldest, now seven, cares a whole lot more about winning than I do, even though the games have thus far technically been unscored. That will change this year, which means I’ll have either a winner or loser on the car ride home each week, as I did already in basketball. So even as I eschew the sport’s pinnacle, the Little League World Series, I tacitly support its foundation through my own family’s participation. This is the hypocrisy of the American sporting complex, really part of the hypocrisy of life, like how I’m a steadfast vegetarian but drink milk from factory farms. Life isn’t just confusing, but also complex.

This year’s World Series has done nothing to mollify that dissonance. This year, we’re living no less than three uplifting stories. First is Mo’ne Davis, the female pitcher from Philadelphia who’s already thrown a shutout and hopes to continue her team’s success tonight against a powerhouse squad, if that’s the correct term, from Las Vegas. Mo’ne has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and can’t keep up with all the autograph requests. Second, there’s the all African American team from Chicago, who just won an elimination game last night against a Texas squad and are the first all-black team to make the Series in 31 years. They’ve been heralded as city ambassadors and perhaps even saviors of the sport for an American demographic that’s seemingly left baseball behind. And third, there’s the post-game speech given by Cumberland, Rhode Island coach David Belisle to his team after elimination from the event, where he joyfully told his kids how proud they should all be, how they’re going to go have some more fun, and how they’ll be friends for life. It’s the talk you wish your kids could hear every year, and it’s hard to get through without wiping your eyes.

This all came from an event I typically won’t watch on principled grounds, because I’ve long insisted it does more harm than good. And it doesn’t take too long a view of history to see where that might be true, from cheating scandals to irate parents to 16 year olds burned out on sports.  For every Cumberland, Rhode Island, there’s a whole lot of Friday Night Tykes, the recent television program that highlighted the darker side of Texas youth football.

All of which leads to the larger question. Is the Little League World Series a good thing, and should we watch it?

It would be rash for me to change my own view based on this one tournament, all of which we see only through the eyes of a television network. And even in the course of this feel-good fortnight, there are things I’m not fond of. Like the fact that the Chicago manager wears work boots on the field, because when the kids go to practice and to games, he says they’re there to work, which technically would be illegal. That’s the very value system that undermines youth sports, where it’s still supposed to be just a game. And while Mo’ne Davis is a remarkable story, it’s not lost that in a short time, she’ll forcefully enter the gender stratified world of elite athletics, where men’s sports are more privileged and culturally valued.  So consider this Davis’ storm before the inevitable calm.

Perhaps it’s best understood that Little League baseball is neither inherently good nor bad, but simply a potential for both. Watch if you wish, but know that beneath the veneer of red, white, and blue, the event operates in a hazy shade of grey. And like most things in life, it is most certainly confusing.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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