Our investigation began with an anonymous letter I received about the bounties that read, "It is disgusting that coaches are teaching these 13 and 14-year-olds to hunt down other kids in the name of sport."
Wesley Van Tonder and his son, Wes Jr., don't want to talk about why they've been banned from coaching the club they founded last year, the Martinez Raptors.
All the Raptor teams -- from high school varsity to under 8 years of age -- have a reputation as competitive squads who play hard. But reports that the Van Tonders were offering cash for hard hits surfaced at the Raptors' under-14 match against Lamorinda.
"One of the players hit our player hard which we thought was fine and he turned to his coach and said, 'How was that coach? Is that good enough for the money?'" said president of Lamorinda Rugby, Tony McKenzie.
The Lamorinda president complained to the league's governing body, the Northern California Youth Rugby Association (NCYRA).
"It was $20 or $30, but from a kid's perspective whether it's $5 or $500, it's a motivation and that's just not appropriate," said NCYRA disciplinary chairman Matt Eason.
Eason held a hearing by conference call, and he says the Van Tonders through an attorney denied ever offering a bounty.
But a player on the Raptors' under-14 team and his father came forward to say it's true -- that the Van Tonders offered that boy and his teammates money for hits that would knock Lamorinda players out of the game.
"And the father was particularly upset that once the investigation began that apparently there had been a meeting of some sort telling the kids, 'Don't say anything about it or else,' and 'or else' was kind of left open," said Eason.
The league announced its decision in an email to coaches and parents:
- All of the Raptor teams are suspended until Jan. 1; they'll miss the summer season
- They forfeit all of last season's matches
- Wesley Van Tonder and his son are suspended from rugby for three years
"I think three years suspension is kind of light," said Doug De Urioste, father of a player. "You know, I think there should be no tolerance, that it should be just you're done. You're out of this program for life."
I spoke about the Raptor bounties with parents who brought their sons to Treasure Island this past weekend to try out for the Bay Area all-star teams.
"I think the Raptors got what they deserve," said parent and coach of the Danville Oaks, Tuggy Makaiwi. "There's no room for that at this level of youth sports or in any level. There's no room for bounties."
Several parents think the Raptors got the idea from the New Orleans Saints scandal. The NFL suspended coaches and players because the team offered cash payments for intentionally injuring opposing players. A documentary filmmaker caught the Saints' defensive coordinator urging his players to target San Francisco 49er running back Frank Gore before last season's playoff game. "Kill the head and the body will die. We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways," said Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
"We've lost sight of the true purpose of sports," said sports psychologist Dr. Joann Dahlkoetter who's helping athletes train for the Olympics. She says bounty programs send a dangerous message. "Especially at this age, at age 13 and 14, kids are learning lessons for life and it's really important that they learn the right lessons, learn how to treat people properly."
We don't know the Van Tonders' motivation; they wouldn't answer in person or respond to my phone calls and email about the bounties.
But at last weekend's all-star tryout, I met two Raptor moms who still support the team.
"I think that's ridiculous. The Van Tonders would never do that," said Raptor mom Robin Vieira. Asked if she's still behind the team, she replied, "I am. I will be forever. We bleed purple, we're purple. We're here for the long haul. Our kids have done so well in this organization."
The Van Tonders had the right to appeal the suspensions but agreed not to after the league allowed the under-10 and under-8 teams to enter the playoffs.
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