Photos by Jason Ruiz.
As practice came to a close Thursday night, the North Long Beach (NLB) Junior Midget Panthers took a knee around their head coach. At 7-2, and opposing teams putting up little resistance, they should be vying for a top seed in the this year’s playoffs. Instead, as they congregate around him on the patchy turf at Ramona Park, he reminds them to bring a change of clothes for after Saturday’s game.
The league will be collecting their gear—win, lose or tie. The decision was made earlier this month to pull the plug on North Long Beach Pop Warner’s season due to a league-wide failure to pay back-dues. That has effectively ended what may have been a championship run for the Junior Midgets, the 10- to 13-year-old football program for boys between the weights of 90 to 120lbs.
“I’m disappointed and ashamed that they’re not going to get the opportunity to find out how good they really are, and it’s not any of their faults,” said Don Heard, who has a son on the team.
According to an email from a spokesperson for the Orange Empire Conference (OEC), the local association in which NLB Pop Warner competes in, league representatives informed OEC October 17 that they wouldn’t be able to pay their third assessment on time. According to OEC bylaws, this would disqualify any playoff-eligible team, something the email stated the NLB Pop Warner Board of Directors was aware of.
The email went on to say, “The NLB board of directors have asked OEC board of directors to please meet with their board of directors to help them make sure this problem doesn’t happen again. The process of helping NLB has already started.”
For this year’s team, that process started too late.
At a parent meeting held October 21, the day after a tie-breaker coin flip was held to determine playoff seedings, parents were notified that because of payment delinquencies, the Junior Midget Panthers (along with the rest of the league) would be forced to forfeit the remainder of their games. The last two games the Panthers played were consolation games to ensure they played their minimum of 10 games per OEC non-playoff qualifier guidelines.
However, some parents have alleged that the league still tried to collect money from parents under the pretense that if the outstanding balance was settled, the team would be allowed to go on to compete in the playoffs. Parents present at the meeting, who asked to remain anonymous, also alleged that when the notion that the board may have mishandled funds was brought forth, the league president (who’s also a parent on the team) “started to throw her weight around” and “treated us as if we were nothing,” condemning them for throwing the board of directors under the bus.
Chris Swartz and other parents on the team pooled together money to pay what was described as a non-static amount due to the league only to find out that their efforts were in vain.
“What we found out was the league actually shut them down October 1,” Swartz said of information he gained from a current board member previous to the parent meeting. “We were still trying to collect money on October 21 because the league said if we paid up, we could play in the playoff. When all along they had already known, they already knew we weren’t going to be in the playoffs. They were still collecting fees for something and promising us something that they weren’t able to give us.”
Issues with the collection of dues as well as the organization and the transparency of the board’s actions have been in question for some time, according to parents. Heard, who previously served on the board of directors for two years, said he joined because he wanted to help shore up what many parents felt were deficiencies in the league’s hierarchy.
“I joined the board because I felt that you can’t complain if you don’t try and do something,” Heard said. “The more I got involved, the less I wanted to be a part of it.”
Heard was quick to place some of the blame on the shoulders of the parent’s inability to unite and secure sponsors to help alleviate the costs of playing Pop Warner. Those issues were amplified by this year’s junior midget squad scrambling to find the required 16 players to fill out their roster. What started as a team of twelve, ballooned to 23, but so to did the outstanding dues.
Ultimately though, Heard said the parents, and the board in particular, failed the kids.
“They didn’t take care of business,” Heard said. “And when I was a board member, it didn’t feel like we took care of business. We skated by.”
When the news had to be broken to the team, tears were shed as dreams of ending their season with a trip to Florida and a potential national championship crumbled. But part of being young, Heard said, is that “they have a short memory.” However, the parents’ memories may not run so short, as Heard himself said he’d be shocked if he were back with NLB Pop Warner next year, citing the “sour taste left in everyone’s mouths.”
Swartz echoed that disgust.
“It’s aggravating and it’s unfair,” Swartz said. “They’ve only really taught our children that if you work really hard at something and you don’t give up and you give up time with your friends and time with your family so you can practice and get better, that the only thing you’re going to get out of it is failure anyway. So why even try? And that’s a shame because that’s not the lesson that Pop Warner is promoting.”
By the way the players stayed after practice to run fade routes and deep posts on the tattered lawn, you couldn’t tell that their once promising season is dwindling to a sad, premature close. For some players, Saturday will be the last football game they play in while others face an uncertain future of where they’ll continue with Pop Warner given the way this season ended for NLB.
But for one last practice, they’re just kids under the lights. And you can’t put a price on that.