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Couch: ESPN’s Little League World Series is no longer warm, fuzzy, and cute

Op-ed
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For me, Sunday started with ESPN and the road to the Little League World Series: "The winner punches their ticket to Williamsport," the ESPN announcer said. "The loser goes home and has to start getting ready for school."

Well, there's a message for you: School equals loser.

I learned that some little kid, 12 years old, is nicknamed "Big Dog." The favorite food of a kid named Brody is chicken chimichangas. And today's kids don't feel the urge to beat up someone who claims the nickname "Matty Ice," hits a home run, takes off his helmet, screams, high-steps, and peacocks his way across home plate.

The whole thing felt creepy and a little gross. It was a few days ago that we watched an Olympics where superhero athletes in their early 20s were already so burned out and fried that they were suffering from mental health issues. A few years ago, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka would light up a stadium with their passion, talent, and joy. In Tokyo, they were miserable. They were finished.

The Olympics made me realize how wrong it feels to make such a show of the Little League World Series, putting little kids on ESPN, making 12-year-olds our entertainment and treating them like rock stars.

We need to stop stealing our kids' childhoods and turning them into little professionals. It's not mentally healthy. It doesn't work. It messes up our kids. And it's also not healthy for these children to be placed on display every second of their lives, every moment documented on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. It's too much pressure. The innocence of childhood is corrupted by the weight of historical recording. Biles and Osaka starred in their own documentaries, "Making a Miserable Olympian."

This is what we should have learned from the Tokyo Olympics. Athletic child stars crack the same as Hollywood's.

ABC first showed the LLWS championship game in 1963. It was one game during the show "Wide World of Sports." Back then, and for the next 20 years, it had a feel that was wholesome, innocent, and fun.

ESPN took over in 1982 and started expanding coverage. This year, we get 30 games across ESPN, ESPN 2, ABC, and ESPN Deportes.

By 2014, we had a star in Mo'Ne Davis, the first girl to pitch a shutout and win in the LLWS. She then became the first Little Leaguer on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Her story pumped more air into the Little League balloon.

That same year, a Little League team from Chicago named after Jackie Robinson managed to capture the Windy City's heart and the nation's imagination. Team Jackie Robinson from Chicago's notorious South Side was the first all-black squad to qualify for the tournament in decades. The team won the U.S. bracket of the LLWS, then came home for a massive celebration in Millennium Park.

They were a fairy-tale team, the Tiger Woods of baseball. They were too good to be true. Parents had recruited kids from outside the neighborhood. They had cheated. And their Little League World Series title was stripped. ESPN did not have to return the LLWS television ratings.

These kids are just content for ESPN, an opportunity for product placement. The competition feels a bit staged. At one point on Sunday, they showed kids playing the game of pickle, where a runner is stuck between two bases and fielders throw the ball back and forth, trying to tag out the runner before he gets to a base.

Only in the ESPN version, the bases appeared to be just 6 feet apart, making the game impossible. No kid would put the bases that close, but it did fit nicely on a TV shot.

The Little League World Series started innocently, but the changing times have destroyed that innocence. All levels of sports have been commercialized and professionalized. Today Mo'Ne Davis would be a name-image-and-likeness cash cow. She'd sign deals dwarfing the money generated by Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

Little League is where they light the match that ends in burnout. By the time you're nine years old in baseball, you're already spending the summer on travel teams that play 50 games. If your 10-year-old wants to join, it's too late. You can't put him out there with all those wannabe professionals.

From what I could tell over the past few days of children on TV, most of these kids would be better served at home getting ready for school. The LLWS looked like a blooper reel for Bob Saget's "America's Funniest Home Videos." It reminded me of the movie "Bad News Bears."

Every little mistake these children made was broadcast to the nation. Losing my mind momentarily and forgetting I was watching children, I started getting frustrated at all the mistakes, until I caught myself.

I'll save my booing for the Chicago Cubs, not for these "losers" who have to go to school.
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