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Payton baseball coach shouldn’t be fall guy in forfeit controversy

Updated: June 3, 2013 3:48PM

A lot of important people were embarrassed last weekend when Payton College Prep backed out of its baseball game with Brooks College Prep after some parents at the North Side school raised security concerns about sending their kids into the Roseland neighborhood at night.

When important people are embarrassed, they start looking for a fall guy, and for a while at least, they thought they’d found one in Payton baseball coach William Wittleder.

Wittleder doesn’t deserve to suffer that fate, as Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who serves as one of the baseball coaches at Brooks, will readily attest.

Beale told me Wednesday he has tried to make it known to anyone who will listen that Wittleder should not be used as a scapegoat for what happened.

“I think the coach was an upstanding guy,” said Beale, who gave Wittleder credit for coming all the way to Brooks on Saturday to personally apologize on behalf of his players and program for forfeiting the game.

“I looked in that gentleman’s eyes, and he was choking back tears” as he explained the situation, Beale said. “I could see the hurt in his eyes that he had to deliver that message.”

Just as Wittleder would later tell the Sun-Times, the Payton coach told his Brooks counterparts that some parents had refused to allow their children to travel to the game, Beale said. He also told the coaches the cancellation was against everything he believed in.

“For anybody to try to make him the fall guy is ridiculous,” Beale told me.

Ridiculous, yes, but that hasn’t kept some folks from trying.

Wittleder’s big mistake, as far as I can see, was to tell the truth to the Brooks coaches and to this newspaper when his superiors would have rather he kept his mouth shut or offer a socially acceptable cover story.

Telling the truth is not necessarily a high priority at Chicago Public Schools. The emphasis is on messaging and putting the right spin on things.

By Monday morning, Payton Principal Timothy Devine had developed the preferred message, blaming the incident on Wittleder’s “poor communication” with parents and on the “media,” which he said had “concocted” the story.

Devine went so far as to say the “cancellation had nothing to do at all with the location of Brooks in our Chicago community.”

I’m told Devine is a decent guy, and I have no doubt he is a good principal of an exceptional school that values diversity. But nobody concocted anything.

True, there were additional factors that factored into Payton being short of players. No bus had been made available for travel to the game, and players were expected to get there by carpool — a complication that could certainly frustrate parents, although it is overcome by other school teams every day with the help of parents.

Plus, some of the parents were feuding with the coach over his threat to discipline players for missing baseball practice to take advanced college placement practice exams.

But it was parental objections on the basis of security concerns that caused Wittleder to finally cancel the game.

“About three, four parents [came] up to me saying they’re not letting their kids go down there,” Wittleder told the Sun-Times’ Mike Clark on Saturday. He hasn’t done an interview since.

One of the parents confirmed the security concerns to WBBM this week, and interestingly, he backed the coach.

Wittleder, 31, is not a member of the faculty at Payton. He teaches physical education at Wells High School and has coached baseball at Payton for two years.

That makes him expendable from Payton’s point of view, and I don’t doubt he and the school may part company after this season, which ends in two weeks. A makeup game between Payton and Brooks has been rescheduled for May 11.

As of now, Wittleder is back with the team and prepared to finish the season. Latest indications are everybody would prefer this just blow over, which is fine by me.

But those who see this situation for what it is will be watching closely to make sure nobody makes a move on Wittleder’s teaching job. With ten years coaching experience, Wittleder should also be able to find another baseball post if he’s not wanted at Payton.

“If anything harmful came to this gentleman, that would be sending a doubly wrong message,” observed Beale.

I’m not accusing anybody of racism here, although race is clearly a big factor in what happened--along with clout.

“I commend the coach for taking a stand and doing the right thing,” Beale said.

So do I.

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