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No one escapes punishment. It finds us all, young or old. It just seems sadder that our beloved little league baseball team, darlings in grass-stained uniform, have fallen under the sledgehammer of greed and the iron fist of law so early, so publicly.

They had risen so high.

And now that cheating has been uncovered (that is, being talked about openly — it was always known), their meteoric rise into the public eye and the adoring public consciousness has now exploded in supernova brilliance.

* * *

To say the kids are not champions may be technically accurate, but it’s not the statement we should be rushing toward. This isn’t the kids’ fault. Not primarily.

Sure, some of these pre-teens were probably complicit. But… I feel convicted by this… the whole city of Chicago was complicit.

The whole state was complicit.

The whole country was complicit.

We were all complicit.

It is impossible that no one outside team management knew some of these kids were coming from out-of-district. How hard was it to recognize something was amiss? How hard to see that something didn’t add up? That it wasn’t all kosher?

It wasn’t hard to see…

…if we’d bothered to look.

I’m certain some people did look and turned the other way. For the rest of us, we can plead ignorance, but ignorance is no excuse. We wanted our kids to win, and we were going to avoid any harsh truth to make the winning last.

It is easiest – and not without large granules of truth – to say this is on the coaches. They were the one’s orchestrating things. They knew where these kids were coming from and that borders were literally and legally being crossed.

It’s just as easy to blame social politics. It’s easy to blame gerrymandering, like we heard on “Around the Horn.” It’s easy to blame the media. TV wanted an underdog, so that’s what we gave them!

Or how about throwing guilt on the win-at-all-costs culture that permeates this country, from five-year-olds playing AYSO soccer all the way up to probably-intentionally-deflated footballs in the NFL. We live in a competitive culture, a faux meritocracy, where trophies and LSAT scores and letters after your name give you automatic status. And in a culture like that, people are going to manipulate the system. Loopholes, corked bats, programing answers into your graphing calculator before tests, or downright, outright, openly-conniving, no-holds-barred blatant cheating. This is all straight from the serpent’s mouth.

We all want to win. So we will all be tempted to cheat. And most of us, at one point or another, will do it…

…and get away with it.

The saddest thing here, for Jackie Robinson West, for Chicago, for America and all our proud cheaters, isn’t that medals have been stripped. It’s not even that a great honor has been lost, a confetti-jumping, gold-flashing memory has been tarnished.

The saddest thing is that some of these kids are now going to get bitter. They’re going to hold a grudge against the system that betrayed them, against the Authority they came to respect. And bitterness and grudges are seeds of destruction, and could very well come to more manipulation, corruption, and an anything-to-win, it’s-okay-as-long-as-we-don’t-get-caught mentality.

The saddest thing is that the thing that really made these kids champions has come into danger. It wasn’t their skill on the diamond, though that was walloping. The thing that made them champions was the way they carried themselves. The way they played, win or lose. If the building pressure of this national embarrassment threatens to strip them of anything, it’s a far more valuable thing than trophies.

We were all there at their parade down Michigan Avenue. From the South Side. Through the neighborhood. And we all cheered. I watched them take praise — and take it well — on a stage in an amphitheater in Millennium Park. Remember why we loved them then.

The way they represented themselves, the South Side of Chicago, and the country so well mustn’t be forgotten. It wasn’t the thing that got their names engraved on placards, but it’s the thing that rallied us, that lifted us, that made Chicagoans and Americans everywhere skip work with dreams of Williamsport. They made us proud.

So let us learn a lesson of character here. That the same history that honors colluding champions and diddling, promoting politicians, also honors character. We still care about honesty, respect, and fair play, on the field and off.

Like the rest of us, Jackie Robinson West fell from grace. None of us are champions today. We have all been devious, scheming, treacherous, wily, Machiavellian shrews.

But even we, in spite of everything behind, can be true and brave for truth tomorrow. We can become champions yet.

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