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League President Flagged for Slurs

The Santa Ana Pop Warner head admits uttering racial remarks but says he's never used them on the field or among children.

August 29, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

As the kids in the Santa Ana Pop Warner league suit up for a new football season, parents and coaches -- most of them Latino and African American -- are feuding over the league president's use of racial slurs.

The controversy has spilled over into Internet discussion groups, spawned anonymous fliers and drawn the attention of the Orange Empire Conference -- which oversees youth football in Santa Ana and 23 other Southern California cities -- and two civil rights groups.

At issue is whether the league president has muttered racial slurs during games or if his foes hold greater blame by repeating the alleged slurs in Internet messages and fliers distributed at practices and board meetings.

League President Kurt Winn, who is white, conceded he sometimes uses racist words to identify blacks and Latinos, but only among friends who are comfortable with such language, never on the field or among children.

"If I'm a racist, why am I volunteering for a league where almost all of the kids are black or Hispanic?" said Winn, who grew up in Santa Ana and played in the league as a child. "It's crazy."

League officials say 420 boys and girls are registered to play in the league, the vast majority Latinos and African Americans. The league is open to children ages 5 to 16.

'Sometimes a Jerk'

Winn said the accusations have been fanned by Michael Gonzalez, an old boyhood pal who was -- until his recent dismissal from the league -- a fellow Pop Warner board member. They played football together in the Santa Ana league and in high school. Both still prowl their old playing fields but no longer talk.

Conference officials said they probed the accusations after more than a dozen parents and coaches, including Gonzalez, complained this year to the league's board. Steve Sherman, conference commissioner, said he was unable to validate the accusations during interviews with coaches and parents.

Sherman said the most damning thing he turned up was that some parents thought Winn was "loud, obnoxious and sometimes a jerk."

The Orange County Human Relations Commission offered to mediate the dispute but was rebuffed by league board members. A local NAACP chapter intends to investigate.

With a new season at hand and practice fields jammed with children wearing shoulder pads and helmets, the debate -- which had simmered over the summer -- has been recharged.

"I think this whole thing is ridiculous. I've never seen any racism," said Sonya Tabb, whose 9-year-old son plays in the league. "This began as a personal vendetta, and I don't see how it's benefiting the kids. The kids have become secondary."

Coach Jesse Lynwood, who like Tabb is African American, said he has never heard Winn's supposed racial remarks and is more alarmed that the league president's detractors are using the very same terms in fliers.

But Gonzalez and his supporters insisted that the accusations are true and that the remarks have been hurtful.

"I don't know Kurt off the field. I've heard him use racial slurs. He said them when I first met him, on the field," said coach Dave Vega.

'Behind Their Back'

Phil Barnum, another coach, said Winn uses slurs to describe African Americans. "He won't say it to their face," said Barnum, who is white. "He'll say it behind their back."

Winn said he is cautious when and where he uses racial slurs and refuses to "apologize for believing in my white race and culture."

"I would be a liar if I said I never said those words," said Winn, who does not have children playing in the league. "But I've never said them in the presence of a child. I've never said that on the field. And when I have spoken those words, it's been while joking with friends."

Becky Esparza, a friend and an assistant commissioner in the Orange Empire Conference, said she has never heard Winn use racial slurs and that a mock Nazi salute he gives at times is only a joke.

"Kurt is loud and can be obnoxious," said Esparza, who is white. "He was just joking around, among friends. Someone asked him, 'How high is your grass?' And he responds, 'This high,' and sticks his arm out. It's all in fun."

It was Esparza who as past president of the Santa Ana league dismissed Gonzalez last year. She said he was ousted because he was disruptive and profane at board meetings.

Gonzalez said he was dismissed after asking the board to discipline Winn for using racial epithets.

"I had grown pretty much immune to it. He's been using the same racial slurs since we were in high school," Gonzalez said. But he said that he was especially offended by an alleged verbal attack on a black coach during a board meeting.

"Bubba and I have known each other forever," said Winn of Gonzales. "After all these years, he says I'm a racist?"

The controversy over whether Winn is a racist has taken its toll on the league and its board of directors.

Esparza quit this year after serving eight years on the board and 11 years as a league volunteer. The personal attacks, she said, wore her down.

Walking Away

Winn said this will also be his last year as a board member and volunteer.

"After six years, I'm walking away," he said.

Sherman said he regrets Winn's decision.

"It's a horrible thing if he walks away," said the conference commissioner.

"Good volunteers are hard to find."

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