Mayor Donna Smith is an ardent football fan who can be found on many an autumn Friday night in the bleachers at Garey High School, rooting for two of her sons, who play for the school’s team.
Despite her love for the game, however, Smith has few cheers for Pop Warner, a nationwide football organization that provides gridiron competition for more than 200,000 children between the ages of 7 and 15.
Pop Warner’s Mt. Baldy Conference kicked out Pomona’s team 10 years ago amid charges of rowdyism by fans and mismanagement by team officials. In recent months, the mayor has lobbied conference officials to give her city a second chance.
They declined, saying the conference, which stretches from San Dimas to Fontana, already has too many teams. Even now, with 10 cities competing, a team can’t play all of its conference rivals in an eight-game season, they said.
“We’re just overexpanded to the point where you can’t get a true champion because you don’t play every team in your division,” said conference President Tony Rizzo. “The feeling right now is ‘What good does it do to bring another city in if we can’t even play them?’ ”
Smith has gone on the offensive, hurling allegations of unfairness and racism at the Mt. Baldy Conference and Rizzo. The mayor said that when she demanded to know why Pomona was being kept on the sidelines, Rizzo suggested that it was because of the city’s large minority population.
“Mr. Rizzo said the spectators were rowdy and the black people were the problem,” Smith said. “He said other teams didn’t want to play in Pomona, and they didn’t want Pomona coming to their cities.”
Smith wrote to the national office of Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc. in Philadelphia, complaining that Rizzo had been “rude and arrogant” in telephone conversations with her. She warned that the Mt. Baldy Conference could lose its tax-exempt status and its right to use facilities such as publicly owned playing fields if it continues to discriminate against Pomona youngsters.
Rizzo has denied making any racist comments, though he acknowledged that he may have cited rowdy spectators among reasons why other teams in the conference voted Pomona out a decade ago.
“If you have to take kids into an area and play under police protection, we don’t want that,” Rizzo said, expressing the other teams’ sentiments at the time.
“That statement (about rowdy fans) was made 10 years ago when we had all the problems. (Smith) made it sound like we said it in 1988. . . . We don’t have any qualms with the community, the people, today.”
David G. Tomlin, president of Pop Warner, has supported Rizzo. In response to Smith’s letter, Tomlin informed the mayor that the national office typically doesn’t meddle in the affairs of its 140 conferences and thus could not force the Mt. Baldy Conference to readmit Pomona.
And while Pomona may not have its own team, Tomlin said, youngsters from the city may play for teams in surrounding cities if space is available on rosters. Last year, teams in Chino, Diamond Bar, Ontario, San Dimas and La Verne included 82 players and 16 coaches from Pomona, he said.
Tomlin also advised Smith to retract statements she had made that the Mt. Baldy Conference was practicing “discrimination based somewhat on race.” Speaking by telephone from his office in Philadelphia, Tomlin attributed Smith’s charges of racism to a misunderstanding.
“Maybe 10 or 12 years ago, there was a possible racial incident,” Tomlin said. “I don’t know. (Rizzo) may have said something like that. Maybe the mayor, being a sensitive person, took that as an expression of racial hostility or prejudice. . . . We don’t see a problem in that respect. If we did, I guarantee you we’d do something about it.”
Smith has refused to take back her statements about the conference, reiterating that in recent conversations with her, Rizzo specifically mentioned black spectators causing problems.
Acknowledging that she has not been able to gain much ground in her drive to get Pomona readmitted to Pop Warner, Smith said her new game plan will be to seek a charter for the city in Junior All-American football, a similar program.
“What I’m trying to do now is just focus on getting a football program for the city,” Smith said. “We’re trying to explore all our options right now.”
Both Tomlin and Rizzo said Pomona may be able to get a Pop Warner charter in a few years if a new conference is created to serve the Inland Empire and desert areas. Space for Pomona would be created in the Mt. Baldy Conference if some teams leave to join the new conference, they said.
“There are possible avenues to explore,” Tomlin said, “but not in an atmosphere of newspaper articles and racial allegations.”