California Pop Warner program accused of Saints-style bounty program for big hits, knocking foes from game

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

In a stunning turn of events, before the New Orleans Saints' "Bountygate" scandal became national news, a youth football team in Southern California was already employing similar tactics, offering payment for big hits and injuries that knocked opposing players out of games.

The 2011 Tustin Red Cobras, who reached the Pop Warner Jr. Pee Wee Super Bowl —
The 2011 Tustin Red Cobras, who reached the Pop Warner Jr. Pee Wee Super Bowl —

As reported by the Orange County Register, the coaches of the 10 and 11-year-old Tustin Red Cobras Pop Warner squad offered cash payments to players who successfully knocked out specific players for teams from towns like Yorba Linda, Santa Margarita and San Bernadino. The practice was confirmed to the newspaper by Cobras assistant coach John Zanelli and three different players, all interviewed individually.

Incredibly, this isn't even the first set of allegations about a bounty program in California youth sports, with a San Francisco-area youth rugby program accused of a similar plan in May.

While the newspaper has moved forward on the allegations with determination, all other Red Cobras coaches and the Tustin league president denied the practice when confronted about it by the Register. One of the coaches went so far as to blame the allegations on sour grapes from parents who were forcing their children to lie; "It's amazing what disgruntled parents will put their kids through,"

Those denials fly in direct conflict with the comments of the parent of one Red Cobras player who "won the prize" following a big hit in a Cobras playoff game against Yorba Linda.

"My son said he had won the prize," said the father, whose name is not being used to protect the identity of his son. "He had a good, clean hit. The kids voted his play as the play of the game. He showed me one $20 bill. He said the coaches, plural, gave it to him."

The players and assistant coach involved who spoke to the Register backed up that recollection with significant details about how the entire bounty system unfolded, giving concrete timelines behind the allegations first brought forth by parents of the Tustin players.

"[Tustin head coach Darren] Crawford was saying, basically, they were going to give kids cash for the biggest hits in the game, and [Tustin assistant coach Richard] Bowman said if they hit certain players, they would get more money," Tustin assistant coach John Zanelli, who came clean about the practice, told the Register. "One was No. 42, and there were a couple of others as well.

"As the practices went on that week, Bowman in particular would reiterate [the bounty program] to the kids time and again."

Still, despite an apparent wealth of testimony against the coaches in question -- including allegations made by their former colleague -- officials from the Orange Empire Conference declined the chance to hand out any sanctions related to the alleged bounty incidents.

As one might expect, that has left parents of the players who were hurt completely enraged at how their children were used as collateral damage in Tustin's run to an undefeated season and Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee championship tournament in Florida.

"The [Tustin] coaches' behavior is appalling," Tara Yocam, whose son played for the Santa Margarita Pop Warner squad, told the Register. "I wouldn't allow my son to play for those Neanderthals. They're low-lifes. I'm embarrassed for them. It's immature parenting, trying to win at all cost. Where is the sense of right and wrong? It shows a complete lack of integrity."

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