When Coaches Cheat

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Sometimes youth coaches who cheat make national news, as was the case recently when it became known that this summer’s feel-good youth baseball story, of Jackie Robinson Little League winning the World Series, was tainted. But more often, cheating in youth sports is hidden in the shadows. However, even the slightest “bending” of the rules by a coach can have long-term, significant consequences.

An article recently ran in the Los Angeles Times sports section entitled, Little Lie Got Him in to Play Baseball 59 Years Ago, by respected columnist Bill Dwyre. The article juxtaposed the Jackie Robinson Little League story with that of a young African-American boy, Phil Hart, and his white friend, Gary Cagan. Hart admits that the Jackie Robinson scandal has brought back memories about his initiation into youth league baseball. When he was eleven, (he’s now 70), he tagged along to one of Cagan’s Little League practices to watch. The coach asked if he wanted to play and found out he was good. The only problem was, he lived outside league boundaries. So the coach concocted a plan to list Hart’s address as Cagan’s. Hart was then able to play for the team, which won the city championship. The twist in the story was that Gary Cagan is now a somewhat notorious figure, claiming to be an informant in the Oklahoma City bombing and having served prison time for insurance fraud. Meanwhile, Phil Hart has gone on to a successful career and says he often wonders why his white friend’s life went awry.
But I read something deeper in this story: Think about the message this Little League coach taught all of those kids; namely that it is OK to break the rules in order to win. Now think about what happened down the road with Cary Gagan’s life. Is it a stretch to say that he was influenced by the example set by this coach? Maybe. Phil Hart turned out fine and presumably the other kids on the team didn’t all become criminals. But isn’t it possible that one eleven year-old boy, who likely idolized his coach, was deeply imprinted by these actions and, like a train switching tracks, was sent in a new and jaded direction that affected his perceptions and decisions for life?

This is why, even if the kids from JRLL didn’t know what the grownups had done, it was important that they experience consequences. I have heard pundits saying that they don’t believe the kids from Jackie Robinson should be punished because it is the adults who broke the rules. I have even heard some say the rule breaking itself was not such a big deal – that probably lots of leagues do it. But here’s where those of us who are deeply entrenched in the value of youth sports disagree with those sentiments. Youth sports is not so much about winning as it is about life lessons and leadership. One of those lessons should be that if you cheat, you will be caught and there will be punishment. The young boy in this story, Gary Kagan, learned 59 years ago that cheating is OK, and it even pays.

The guess is that most coaches reading this don’t believe themselves to be cheaters. But even if you “bend the rules” by fudging playing time restrictions, putting players in positions they are not supposed to play, or other such “minor” oversights that you can justify as not being a big deal, your players are watching. Yes, the kids at Jackie Robinson Little League did have their title vacated after the fact. However, since we cannot strip these players of their glory and the experience, the punishment handed down will be titular at best. And what these impressionable youngsters really learned from the adults in their charge might end up manifesting itself in a tragic manner years down the road.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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