Philadelphia Public League Finds Success through Adversity
Navigating a pair of crises over the last calendar year has been taxing on everyone.
In addition to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has been full-blown in the United States since the middle of March 2020, the country has faced a reckoning on social justice issues stemming from the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last May.These issues have intersected with sports at all levels, with high school athletics feeling the effects on both ends. At a time where it’s been impossible to play games in many circumstances, building and maintaining a winning culture both on and off the field is more important than ever.
In Philadelphia, Jimmy Lynch has seen the effects of both issues up close. Lynch, who grew up just outside the city and later attended St. Joseph’s University as an undergrad and received his doctorate from Drexel, is the Executive Director of Athletics and President of the Philadelphia Public League.
Though athletics in the city have been on pause in terms of team competition since the onset of the pandemic, Lynch said that staying committed to engaging with kids, whether in person or virtually, is essential to keeping them on a successful trajectory.
“You want to build a winning culture, but you want to build a positive culture so that every kid who has the opportunity to play has an enjoyable experience,” Lynch said. “Part of that comes with addressing the inequities and racial issues that are prevalent in sports across the world.”
Lynch said that the Philadelphia Public League, which oversees some 200,000 kids between grades 4-12 at roughly 75 high schools and 120 middle schools, is a close-knit organization despite its size. As such, he said he hasn’t had to deal with many issues involving race between the schools in the league since he began his role in the summer of 2016.
“Each school has an immeasurable amount of respect for one another and really works to support each other throughout the year so that the teams that are successful can shine in the state playoffs,” Lynch said.
Gun violence-plagued Philadelphia in 2020, with a 40% increase in homicides from 2019 through the end of November.
“It has really put our kids at a disadvantage and really kind of highlighted the concerns with not keeping kids active,” Lynch said.
Throughout Pennsylvania, the fifth-most populous state in the US, the Philadelphia Public League is one of just two leagues that’s yet to resume team competition at any point during the pandemic.
While there are individual cities in towns in other districts who remain on the sidelines as well, Lynch said that idle time has shone the inequities between the diverse league he oversees and its suburban and rural counterparts.
“The pandemic has hit our urban areas a lot more than suburban areas,” Lynch said, noting that many facilities off of school grounds have been affected as well, making it harder to find safe playing fields. “We’re still committed to playing sports this year and giving every kid a chance to play their chosen sport this year, but there are lots and lots of challenges that lie ahead.”
Many kids in the city utilize public transportation, which is another hurdle for a return to competition, Lynch said, as it’s oftentimes difficult to maintain safe social distancing measures on crowded buses or trains.
The trying times have still featured some triumphs in Philadelphia, Lynch noted. In the fall, the league participated in a three-part “virtual season” with sports that were canceled due to the pandemic where kids kept in touch with their coaches, and teams did remote programming focused on the NCAA recruiting process, mental health and wellness programming, and a partnership with the Positive Coaching Alliance.
In mid-December, 12 student-athletes from the Philadelphia Public League signed letters of intent to play Division I college football despite not having a season in the fall.
“We could easily have packed up shop and mailed it in until the New Year, but coaches wanted to stay committed to their kids and wanted to stay engaged with them,” Lynch said. “We’re hoping that had a positive impact not only on their teams but also on their academic progress as well.”
Philadelphia is still on a remote learning program, as it has been for nearly a year now. Contingency plans are being developed for interscholastic competition to begin possibly as soon as Feb. 1, Lynch said, which would include both fall and winter sports which had been seemingly wiped out.
However, there are contingencies in place all the way through April 1 as well, which would be focused on salvaging a spring season after it became a casualty of the pandemic last spring.
“They’re resilient, they’ll bounce back,” Lynch said. “It has been hard on everyone, but we have to stay committed to our kids. That’s the reason we do what we do.”