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Michigan town boycotts Little League playoffs

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All over the nation, all-star teams in no-star towns are starting the long road to South Williamsport, Pa., and its Little League World Series. I would ask the fine folks of the Little League in Escanaba, Mich., to throw out the first pitch, except they’ve already taken their ball and gone home.

Escanaba, a city of 12,000 on the Lake Michigan coast of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, has elected to sit out the Little League playoffs in a decision its local board ungrammatically said “was not easy but was forced by years of working the bureaucrat system.” Are any of them members of the Democrat party?

So what is the problem? Like India and Pakistan in Kashmir, and you and your little brother over the backseat of your parents’ 1979 Cutlass, the issue is a border dispute.

According to the Daily Press of Escanaba, that city’s Little League started in 1951, and took a trip to the World Series in 1957. However, Gladstone, a city of 5,000 seven miles up the coast, formed its own Little League in 1973, in part because of fiddling with Escanaba’s boundaries so it could keep as much of the city as possible and meet the Little League standard of a population of 15,000. One section was lopped off “because many of the residents were senior citizens and if there were any children they were more likely to be interested in sailing, tennis or golf.” When families in that area complained that their kids indeed like baseball, too, when they weren’t busy being little Newport, R.I., the borders were readjusted, and upset parents in the newly carved-out territory joined forces with Gladstone, where it remains to this day.

(By the way, the territory Gladstone’s Little League serves includes an area my father, a Boston native who came to Upper Michigan when he was assigned there in the Air Force, derisively referred to as “nowhere.” As in, when he was dating my mother, a Gladstone native, my father — used to cities and suburbs that all blended together — while they were driving asked her, “Where are we?” My mom said, “Between Gladstone and Escanaba.” My dad said, “No, what city are we in?” My mom said, “We’re not in one. We’re between Gladstone and Escanaba.” My dad said, “But if we died in a car accident, where would they say we died?” My mom said, “Between Gladstone and Escanaba.” My dad said, “So you mean, ‘Nowhere.’ “)

Funny story: Over the years, Little League raised its population maximum per territory to 20,000, and Escanaba’s population declined to below 15,000 anyway. So there was no need to adjust territories. Also, the territory Escanaba lopped off happened to supply a fair number of players. So Gladstone, with less than half the population of Escanaba, has 402 registered players, while Escanaba has 332.

Escanaba would like its players back, you know, for the kids. A release Escanaba put out in May, announcing its Little League playoff boycott, boo-hooed: “[I]t is very difficult for a coach or a board member to have to tell an Escanaba student that they cannot play ball with their school friends.” It hurts them more than it hurts you, kid.

Of course, this argument is going over in Gladstone as well as a fart in deer camp.

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A fart in deer camp, courtesy of Jeff Daniels’ 2001 opus, “Escanaba in da Moonlight.”

Says Gladstone Little League president Mike Gobert, in the Daily Press: “With the program we have, we have a pretty good set-up. I’m perfectly satisfied with the way it is.” Of course.

Actually, the Gladstone Little League is right, and I’m not just saying that because my mother grew up there, and because my grandmother ran the Daily Press Gladstone bureau for years. (In Gladstone, not between Gladstone and Escanaba.) If Escanaba hadn’t tried to game the system decades before, it wouldn’t be in the trouble it is today, like what people say about Reaganism and the state of the present American economy.

I’m not sure what Escanaba thinks it can gain by a boycott. The Gladstone Little League says it is getting calls from Escanaba parents asking if they can enter their kids on a Gladstone all-star team, but that isn’t happening. So the kids are upset, and I doubt the Escanaba parents are blaming Gladstone. Anyway, I don’t think that when Brent Musberger takes the mike for the Little League World Series, he’ll say, “We have some great teams here, but they’ll all have an asterisk, because mighty Escanaba never played.”

On top of that, Escanaba lost the right to host any Little League playoffs. The girls senior division goes to Manistique, population 3,500, while the age 11 state tournament shifts to — ha ha — Gladstone. Given that the Upper Michigan economy was never great even when it was good, the only thing Escanaba’s boycott is accomplishing is preventing people from spending much-needed money there.

I hope the Escanaba bureaucrat system is happy with that.

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Girls basketball meets SB1070 and the right-wing outrage machine

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A few days I noted that if anyone in the youth sports world objected to the new Arizona law, SB1070,  that creates a Latino hunting season, I mean, allows police to demand identification is they suspect someone might be an illegal immigrant, a boycott would be an effective way to suck money out of the state and draw some attention to the cause.

I had no idea that someone would take this suggestion seriously (even if, technically, they probably came to the idea independent of me), or that it would succeed so wildly — in the same way Disco Demolition Night was a wild success for the Chicago White Sox. In that, the decision to disallow the Highland Park (Ill.) High School girls’ basketball team to go to a tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., is certainly attracting attention to the cause, but with an out-of-control reaction by a lot of over-the-top yahoos, someone is going to suffer some collateral damage for the unexpected amount of attention it generated. Especially with Sarah Palin getting involved.

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The scene at Highland Park High.

The most likely victim: Suzan Hebson, assistant superintendent of District 113, of which Highland Park is part. She is the one who, apparently all by her lonesome, decided May 12 that the Giants girls’ basketball team should not go to Arizona. According to the Chicago Tribune, she cited safety concerns raised by the new law, what with 15 percent of the district being Hispanic. (Highland Park itself is an upscale suburb, but the district also draws from the poorer, much more heavily Latino suburb of Highwood.) However, the part that got parents riled up and fueled the backlash against her decision was her statement that the trip “would not be aligned with our beliefs and values.”

So instead of going to Arizona and wearing “Los Giants” in protest, the school wasn’t going at all.

If President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics over its invasion of Afghanistan (ah, remember the days when the Taliban was on our side?) taught us anything, it’s that athletes who have worked hard for a big event, and the family members who supported them, get very upset when one person decides to cancel a trip for political reasons. If there’s any doubt this was not a decision by committee, the Tribune story had this line:

District 113 Superintendent George Fornero declined comment, saying it “wasn’t just my decision.” He referred calls to Hebson.

Plus, the coaches running the tournament in Arizona said they didn’t know about Highland Park’s withdrawal until reporters asked them what they thought about it.

While I suggested a boycott of Arizona, let me clarify: I don’t think canceling the girls basketball trip was a good idea. At least when the Phoenix Suns won “Los Suns” on Cinco de Mayo, the Suns’ owners asked the players what they thought, and got their support, before their protest. I could understand Hebson saying, from here on it, no new trips to Arizona. But canceling a trip already scheduled, without checking with anyone? Yes, you’re hurting Arizona (which I have no problem with), but you might end up hurting yourself more.

And here’s where Sarah Palin comes in.

By coincidence, Palin — on her I-quit-being-governor-to-make-scads-of-cash-neener-neener speaking tour — happened on the evening of May 12 to be speaking a few miles to the west of Highland Park, in Rosemont, Ill. With conservative talk radio already starting to get het up over the Highland Park cancellation, Palin decided to throw her folksy weight around on the issue in front of the adoring audience of 4,000. From the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Them are fightin’ words when you say a girl can’t play in the basketball tournament … for political reasons … so we’re going to see about that,” Palin said. …

Palin said the school is still sponsoring a trip to China.

“You know how they treat girls in China?” Palin said. “It makes no sense. Even if they have to do this on our own. …  If the kids have to ‘Go Rogue,’ girls.”

Bringing up Chinese human rights? That’s such a cheap… such a cheap… dammit, Palin might have a point.

Of course, having the former Republican Vice Presidential candidate and the de facto leader of the Tea Party Republicans weigh in put the backlash against Highland Park and Hebson into overdrive. Actually, Palin, a former high school basketball player, did more than weigh in. She is sponsoring, with a local right-wing radio host, a Facebook page dedicated to demanding the Highland Park girls get their trip back. I would love to be inside the heads of any liberal parents of Highland Park girls’ basketball players, trying to balance there incredible dislike for Palin with the strange sight of her now being on their team.

Palin isn’t specifically sending people after Hebson, but she doesn’t have to. The right-wing outrage machine, fueled by Palin’s interest in the matter, is already all over that, not the least of evidence being the top of the Sean Hannity radio show I caught on my car radio (for research purposes only — by the way, I might be a liberal, but I usually find the local left-wing talk station as predictable and unlistenable). A Fox News story talks about Hebson’s background as principal of the other District 113 high school, Deerfield, and the controversy she courted for various gay-friendly initiatives, including a diversity seminar for freshmen that included gay students and adding gay-friendly literature to the school reading list and library.

Of course, the quotes in the Fox News story are exclusively from parent activists from the starboard side of the political spectrum, and they make it sound as if Hebson was authorizing students to have gay sex in front of each other as an integral part of their education. Instead, Hebson said her efforts were simply a means to make for a safer and more tolerant environment, and this report said only a few parents objected, not the dozens Fox said. Yes, that report is from a gay newspaper, but you want the opposite of Fox if you’re trying to make a report like this fair and balanced. (Sorry.)

The school district itself, under siege, on May 13 put out a letter that explained the REAL reason for the cancellation, a letter signed by Superintendent Fornero himself.

As you are aware, there has been significant media attention to Township High School District 113’s decision to not send the Highland Park High School varsity girls’ basketball team to a tournament in Scottsdale, Arizona scheduled for December, 2010.  This decision is not a political statement regarding the State of Arizona’s recently enacted legislation regarding immigration.

OK, I know you’re going to explain why that’s true. But it might be a little late for that explanation.

Under long standing constitutional law, all school districts are required to provide an education to all children within the District’s borders regardless of immigration status. District 113 boasts a diverse student population and, as a school district, we believe in equal opportunity for each of our students.  The selection of a girls’ varsity basketball team for the 2010-2011 winter athletic season will take place in November, 2010.  The team has yet to be selected.  When our students travel, the school district is responsible, both legally and ethically, for their safety, security and liberty.  We cannot commit at this time to playing at a venue where some of our students’ safety or liberty might be placed at risk because of state immigration law.  Our athletes will play in a competitive basketball tournament during their winter break.

Possibly on the back of Highland Park parents’ cars, instead of “Go [insert daughter’s name here]! Win state!”

So what the superintendent is saying, if I read this right, is that the district is not sending a team because it has a philosophical issue with SB1070. It’s because of the possibility that there will be players who may or may not be the target of police for suspicion of being illegal.

That’s a reasonable discussion. And it’s the discussion that should have taken place between Highland Park school officials, the coaches, the players and their parents before one person made the ill-explained decision to cancel the Arizona trip. The consistent thread in Hebson’s most controversial decision-making — and why in some cases the school system has backtracked — it’s been an inability or disinterest in anticipating problems on contentious issues, putting her district in the position of having to explain, after-the-fact, in a crisis situation what might have gone down with far less difficulty if the discussion had happened earlier.

When I say that Hebson might be the collateral damage in her all-too-successful attempt to put a spotlight on a troublesome state law, I don’t think that means she will lose her job. If she was going to, then her boss wouldn’t have put out a statement supporting her decision. What I mean is, Hebson is going to be the latest Enemy of Freedom No. 1 for the right-wing outrage machine, in ways she never was when she was being assailed for being gay-friendly.

After all, in those cases, Sarah Palin wasn’t fightin’ for ’em.

How about a sports boycott of Arizona?

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It’s all the rage to boycott Arizona for its legislature being stone xenophobes. Or boycott anything with Arizona in the name, like Arizona Iced Tea, which is made in New York. (However, I draw the line at no longer watching and quoting “Raising Arizona.” “I’ll take these Huggies, and all the cash you got in your drawer.” “Son, you got a panty on your head.”)

This rage for rage, all over the new state law that, and I’m paraphrasing, allows — nay, demands —  for police to rustle up Latinos for pleasure (when I explained how police would be compelled to ask anyone “suspicious” of being illegal for “papers,” my 12-year-old son Godwinned it right away: “Like the Jews in Nazi Germany!”) is extending into the sports arena as well, specifically in athletic pontificators pontificating that major leagues should make sure to strip Arizona of any major events planned there, such as the 2011 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, and not to plan any more.

Greg Esposito at the Phoenix fan site Fanster doesn’t like the idea of a boycott.

In [CBSSports.com columnist Mike] Freeman’s piece he says, if a person believes that sports leagues should stay out of politics than they live “on a unicorn ranch”.

I don’t live on a unicorn ranch, but I do live in Arizona, and I can’t change what some legislators decided was a good idea. Neither can the Fiesta Bowl, the Arizona Diamondbacks or any other professional sports team in this state. Boycotting games of teams and people who didn’t have anything directly to do with the law seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Believe it or not, Arizona is a lot like the rest of America, divided. For every person who sees the current immigration law as a good idea there is at least one who doesn’t. The only difference is, the state legislature doesn’t currently have that same balance.

Hey, stop trying to be reasonable here. We’re trying to make a point!

I hear what he’s saying, but unfortunately the only way to get Arizonans to consider changing the dim bulbs in their legislature is to take drastic action. And for sports, this can come at the youth level as well.

For example, if you’d like to really sock Arizona in the wallet, put pressure on U.S. Youth Soccer to yank the 2012 Far West Regionals out of the state. The Major League Baseball All-Star Game might bring the top players in baseball and high-rolling sponsors, but a soccer tournament brings scads of kids and free-spending soccer moms and dads. I bet the losing the soccer tournament would be a bigger hit.

I’m sure there are other multi-state youth sports events going on Arizona. So, travel parents, don’t send your kids, and put pressure on your organization to pull out. Make Arizona’s sports insides an economic rocky place where your seed will find no purchase.

Dammit, I’m sorry. I still can’t support a boycott of quoting “Raising Arizona.”