Northeast High football star Elijah Jeudy is confident that most of his teammates and many other athletes in Philadelphia will put free time to positive use now that the school district has suspended sports until Jan. 1 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Jeudy, senior defensive end and University of Georgia recruit, admits to concerns that some athletes will struggle without the structure and support provided by organized team activities, especially in football.
“Football is like stress relief,” Jeudy said. “If you have anger, you can get it out on the football field.”
Jeudy, a speedy defensive end who is regarded as one of the top players in the state, and others associated with sports in the city worry that the shutdown of the Public League on Monday will put young people at greater risk.
A recent study by the University of Wisconsin found the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a “significant toll on the mental health and well-being” of student-athletes. Malik Jones, football coach at Martin Luther King High, said the school district’s decision to postpone sports could have a devastating impact on some city youngsters.
“It’s very unnerving,” Jones said. “These kids look to us for guidance, not just in terms of football but in terms of life. It’s been taken away, cold turkey.”
Jones and others such as Nick Lincoln, the former football coach at Imhotep Charter and a program director at Open-Door Abuse Awareness Prevention, a nonprofit based in Lansdowne, say it’s imperative for adults to find a way to continue to provide support, especially to youngsters who rely on the structure of sports, camaraderie with teammates and advice of coaches to mitigate the effects of difficult home lives.
“I get the health concerns of this,” Lincoln said. “My concern is that we need to have alternative programming for these kids.”
Officials at the PIAA and the NJSIAA — organizations that oversee high school sports in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, respectively — have pointed to results from the University of Wisconsin study as evidence of the importance of school-sponsored athletics.
The PIAA has suspended sports until Aug. 24 in an effort to create a “dialogue” with the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, who has recommended that all youth sports be suspended until Jan. 1. The PIAA still hopes to be able to stage sports in the fall.
PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said sports participation is “vitally important in the daily life of student-athletes, and there are real ramifications for their emotional, social and mental well-being.”
According to a survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, approximately 68% of 3,243 student-athletes reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that typically would require medical intervention. That represented a 37% increase from past studies, UW Health said in a statement.
“I just had a two-hour conversation last night with a player, trying to get him to express his feelings about this,” Jones said Tuesday morning. “He was so downtrodden. Sports is how these kids express themselves. This is how they are heard.”
Lincoln noted that breaks in adolescents’ routines have been disruptive and potentially dangerous for their mental and emotional well-being.
“Their routine is nonexistent,” Lincoln said. “When they are part of a team, they go to practice every day, there’s a therapeutic value to that, they can relieve stress, they go home, eat dinner, do their homework and go to bed.
“That’s the routine. We [coaches] tire them out. Now they don’t have that routine. They don’t have to get up for school. They don’t have practice after school. It’s very disheartening.”
Given the recent uptick in violence in the city, Jones is worried the lack of sports, which often serves as a sanctuary from the dangers of the streets, could put more youngsters in harm’s way.
“My concern is especially for our younger players,” Jones said. “My seniors, hopefully they have learned to structure their life. My younger kids, they don’t understand that yet.”
In a letter to school athletic directors, Philadelphia district athletic director James Lynch said the “focus in the immediate future” will be the establishment of a “robust virtual program” to engage and support student-athletes.
Lynch mentioned the development of virtual programs that would assist students with NCAA eligibility, sport leadership, post-secondary readiness and health and wellness as well as skill-building and fitness workouts.
“I know the next couple of weeks are going to be difficult, especially for our students,” Lynch wrote.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Jeudy, a pass-rushing specialist who had more than 30 scholarship offers when he committed to Georgia, believes most athletes will stay focused on schoolwork and maintain a disciplined approach to physical conditioning, nutrition, and lifestyle.
But Jeudy said that the suspension of sports activities could be detrimental to some athletes.
“For some kids, football is the only thing keeping them off the streets,” Jeudy said.