A lawsuit filed by parents of the Jackie Robinson West little leaguers is striking back at a host of officials – including ESPN and anchor Stephen A. Smith – and accusing Little League International and ESPN of defamation and false light. The Illinois team won the U.S. Little League title in 2014 before going on to lose to South Korea in the Little League World Series. Six months later, officials stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title, claiming parents brought in “ringers” and “manipulated district lines” in order to field the strongest players they could against the South Koreans.
Reports Chicago CBS Local on Feb. 11: “The lawsuit charges that several people improperly profited from the team’s success. In addition, the suit alleges the controversy resulted in emotional distress, defamation of character and invasion of privacy of the team’s members and family.”
Parents are naming a number of defendants in the suit: Officials from the league, the team’s former coach, Darold Butler and the former league president Bill Haley, parent Chris Janes, identified as a “whistleblower” from Evergreen Park, Illinois, and ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith.
The lawsuit, read here in its entirety, claims officials knew they were putting ineligible players on the field, and that they profited off the disgraced team. Parents claim Coach Butler and other officials were “diligent” about submitting boundary maps, but never informed the parents of the fact their players were ineligible.
“Little League was aware of the potential residency issues of the children of the Jackie Robinson West parents, but chose to ignore and/or deliberately conceal these facts in order to garner higher ratings, publicity, and money for Defendant Little League,” the complaint states. The suit says president Bill Haley concealed the fact that the maps and player addresses fell outside the allowable boundaries.
Despite the internal investigation, the Little League still arranged for Jackie Robinson West’s highly publicized White House visit in November and attendance at a Major League World Series game played in San Francisco.
“Defendant Little League deliberately capitalized on the notoriety of the JRW Team and the JRW Parents in order to bolster its corporate image, gain donations and otherwise profit from the unique appeal of the JRW Tournament Team,” the complaint says.
The suit also charges Chris Janes with “invasion of privacy,” stating that Janes recorded and researched the families’ license plates in order to pinpoint the addresses of the players. He then turned that information over to the league without informing parents.
In addition, plaintiffs are accusing ESPN analyst Stephen Smith of defamation, stating Smith knowingly and inaccurately said parents of the little leaguers “perpetuated a fraud and falsified documents.” Smith spoke in a segment on ESPN’s “First Take,” seen here, saying, “Let’s put Darold Butler and (Illinois District 4 administrator) Michael Kelly’s face up on television, treat it like the mugshot it deserves to be treated like.” Smith, an African American, said he was “ashamed” that a league named after baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson would have effected fraudulent roster manipulation.
Chris Janes called the lawsuit “laughable.”
“We benefited zero from this and we didn’t go into it intending to get anything out of it, except we all want to play by the same rules,” he said.
James Karamanis, the Chicago lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the parents, declined comment. A press conference is due to be held on Monday. An ESPN spokesperson also declined comment on the Jackie Robinson West lawsuit.