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Franky Navarro, new commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League, watches a varsity football game at McClymond's High School at the start of the 2019-20 season.

Home-field advantage: Franky Navarro takes over as Oakland Athletic League commissioner

on October 1, 2019

As Franky Navarro walked along the field during a Friday night football game at Oakland’s McClymonds High School, dozens of people stopped him to say hello, give him a hug or slap him on the back. Many teased him for being followed by a reporter.

It’s hard to find a student in Oakland whom Navarro hasn’t coached. For 12 years, he was the varsity baseball coach at Castlemont High School, eventually becoming the school’s athletic director. But he’s also coached numerous kids over the years in the city’s Babe Ruth Little League, and he helps organize off-season games and practices for kids who can’t afford to sign up for pricey traveling teams.

Navarro adjusted his black Oakland Roots baseball cap and looped his fingers through the straps of his backpack. He watched as Edward Woods, senior cornerback for McClymonds High School, shook out his arms and legs in preparation for a play. He recalled that Edwards’ Little League team was the last one he coached, about five years ago.

“For these kids, just being able to be on the field is changing the city,” Navarro said. “Some of these kids, you know, we’re giving them a different outlet, so they don’t choose to do the things that they’re not supposed to do.”

This year, Navarro has less time to coach. He just stepped into the role of the Oakland Athletic League (OAL) commissioner, putting him in charge of sports districtwide. 

The OAL commissioner ensures physical education programs for K-12 students meet state standards. The commissioner is also in charge of middle and high school student athletic teams—primarily on the logistics and financial side of things. Commissioners create season schedules, coordinate transportation to and from games, ensure compliance with Title IX—federal guidelines to ensure there is no sex-based discrimination—and student academic eligibility to play on league teams. The commissioner also allocates funds to teams and schools.

Ten Oakland high schools currently offer league sports, which differ from club sports—which tend to operate outside of schools—or intramural teams, which are typically less formal. OAL’s high school league sports include tennis, volleyball, football, cross country and golf. More than a dozen district middle schools offer volleyball or flag football as league sports, but Navarro said he wants to increase the number of programs offered at middle schools.

In a district with a large number of schools, athletic performance varies. Late last year, McClymonds’ football team brought home its third consecutive state championship. Meanwhile, at Oakland Tech, the athletic director had trouble getting enough interested students to form a junior varsity football team.  

As Navarro looked out at the field and the stands full of fans, he said he’s ready for the commissioner role. “I’ve been preparing for my many years of working here. This is a dream job for me. I could see myself retiring in this job,” he said.

But Navarro’s main challenge as the new commissioner won’t simply be helping athletes win: It will be making sure programs can thrive in the face of a rocky districtwide situation, where enrollment is declining and budget cuts are commonplace. The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) school board is one of two in California that have direct oversight of an athletic league, which means that district leaders control how much money goes into the league.

This allowed district officials to announce a $500,000 budget reduction for its league sports last August. The district has faced major deficits over the past few years, and in a letter issued last summer, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell wrote that the district needed to reduce the league’s budget from $1.6 million to $1.1 million. The savings were to come by eliminating sports including bowling, golf, tennis, lacrosse and boys’ volleyball. Nearly twice as many female student athletes would have been affected by the cuts than male athletes.

But after just a few days, Johnson-Trammell announced the cuts wouldn’t happen after all. Anonymous contributors and community organizations came in with hefty donations—including the Oakland Raiders, who put forward $250,000. In a message posted to the district website, Johnson-Trammell wrote that she would work to develop a “sustainable and equitable” way to continue to fund the sports that were supposed to get the axe.

Those contributions went toward the 2018-19 budget. This year, the district has reallocated funds to the league, which is operating with an approximately $1.8 million budget. The slightly higher-than-usual figure factors in plans to expand middle school sports—meaning paying more for officials—as well as hiring an assistant commissioner.

Money from the district goes to paying coaches and officials, bussing students to games and in some cases helping subsidize new equipment for individual teams. Each team gets $450 a season, funded through the $50,000 to 60,000 Navarro approximates the league earns from ticket sales at volleyball, football and basketball games each year. Teams can spend this money on things like equipment, uniforms or tournament entry fees.

Navarro said he’s not too worried about the league’s financial situation, even after last year’s scare. After working for nearly a decade as a business banker with Wells Fargo, he considers financial responsibility to be one of his strong suits. In particular, he’s looking for entrepreneurial ways to increase non-district funding for the league. Given the number of multi-million dollar corporations moving into Oakland, Navarro said he hopes to develop strong partnerships to help fund the league. He wants to explore options like having companies sponsor gyms or workout rooms, and he wants to engage alumni—many of whom work for these companies—by hosting galas and golf tournaments to help bring them in as donors.

Navarro said it’s important for principals to recognize that athletic programs are a “front porch” to a school, and that when athletic programs thrive, increased enrollment follows. For many people, sports teams are the first things that come to mind when they think about a particular high school, and sports keep alumni engaged with their alma mater. He also said that when teams are doing well, the morale of the school is notably higher. When he worked as a restorative justice facilitator at Castlemont, he saw a good deal of peer-to-peer conflict when sports teams faltered.

“It’s important for administrators to understand that they have to invest in athletics if they want to improve the culture of the school,” Navarro said.

He said it’s a matter of instilling a sense of school pride in students and staff. And it doesn’t just come from sports—he said teachers, counselors and coaches all have the responsibility to forge bonds with students to keep them engaged in their education. “Athletics is an outlet,” Navarro said. “It provides connections to adults that are really invested in kids. And, you know, they’re not doing it for the money—these coaches don’t even get paid much. But that’s another conversation for another day.”

Navarro attributes his success today to the adults he knew during his time as a student athlete, adults whose names he can rattle off without a moment’s hesitation. There was Jerry Luzar, Navarro’s teacher and baseball coach at Castlemont, who later went on to become an OAL commissioner. And there was Michael Peters, the head coach at McClymond’s High School, who helped Navarro and his friends with their conditioning during high school.

“I’ve always wanted to be one of those adults I had for myself,” Navarro said.

But aside from his time with his coaches and mentors, Navarro said he didn’t have the best experience with sports in high school—he said the practices and facilities weren’t always adequate. He played baseball and soccer at Castlemont, graduating in 1997.

Soccer practices, he said, consisted of running up hills. Teams had to share fields and practice with little equipment. For baseball practices, the team had to walk a half mile down the street to Arroyo Viejo park because they didn’t have a field. The facilities issues weren’t limited to athletic programs, either. For three years, he took his classes in portables, because the buildings had been deemed seismically unfit.

“We made the best out of it,” Navarro said.

As a coach, athletic director and now commissioner, Navarro hopes to provide students with a different sort of experience. But Navarro said the district still has a lot more room to grow. Until three years ago, he said, the weight room at Castlemont was stocked with the same equipment he used as a student there 20 years prior. Coliseum College Prep Academy is one of several schools that doesn’t have an onsite field—and they’ve run into issues using a nearby park. And aside from Fremont High School, which is getting brand new facilities by the end of next year, Navarro said all of OUSD’s facilities were built 30 to 40 years ago.

Navarro said outdated facilities are “demoralizing” for student athletes, especially when they go to away games and see other schools with state-of-the-art set-ups. Some students may even consider leaving their school in favor of one that’s better equipped. He added that it’s not just a matter of school spirit and retention, but that safety is a real concern. When students aren’t allowed to run on certain spots or lift with certain weights or the backboards aren’t working on the basketball courts, it can increase the chances of injury. He said outdated facilities decrease the quality of students’ training on every level.

“It’s just not fair, you know, if you’re asked to compete against other teams and other schools, but you don’t have the proper tools,” Navarro said.

Oakland Tech Athletic Director James Coplan has known Navarro for about ten years now. That’s how long Coplan has been at Oakland Tech, and he said the campus’ athletic program has grown: In a school of about 2,000 students, he estimates 500 are athletes.

Tech is the biggest school in the district, and over the past few years several of their sports facilities have been upgraded, most notably the football field, which was completely redone by the district two years ago. But many upgrades aren’t funded by the district or even OAL. The baseball field, just up the street, is maintained independently by a group of parents. An organization called High School Nation donated $10,000 worth of weight room equipment last year. When Coplan first started at Tech, the California National Guard donated a state-of-the-art scoring table for the school’s basketball games.

But Coplan’s experience is more the exception than the rule. Skyline Athletic Director James Salazar said Oakland facilities don’t stack up to those of surrounding districts, and that deters players and staff from coming to Oakland. He said on his campus, students’ interest in sports has declined over the past few years, due to a variety of factors including lackluster facilities.

One of the biggest: eligibility. Students in the OUSD must maintain a 2.0 GPA in order to play on a league team. “You know how difficult it is oftentimes to stay eligible and to get the support that they need academically,” Salazar said. “The large class sizes, the learning environments that might not necessarily be best for learning, it all in turn makes it harder for kids to get on the field and on the courts.”

Navarro agrees that, districtwide, fewer students are interested in participating year after year. “At some schools, like Oakland Tech, when you have 2,200 students that are really about their school, I think it makes it easier to join in,” Navarro said. “But we have other schools who have the declining enrollment, who had constant turnover of staff. It makes it a little bit more difficult for coaches to build those relationships with students.”

Salazar said declining participation is compounded by—and reflected in—a lack of quality candidates for coaching jobs. He said coaches opt to go to other districts that can offer more support and up to three times as much in stipends.

Navarro agrees that many students are “just not connected to adults that are encouraging them to play.” He said in one football program recently, the roster dropped from 65 players down to 20 after a new coach came in.

Some of the students Navarro has coached say that connection matters both on and off the field. Susana Lopez Alcala, now a senior at UC Berkeley, was in Navarro’s P.E. class during her freshman year at Castlemont. She said he was unlike any teacher she’d had before. He helped her navigate some family issues, and she said he continued to support her as she began playing soccer at the school.

“Franky’s just one of the best teachers and mentors that I’ve had,” Lopez Alcala said. “And it’s certainly not only a him as a P.E. teacher or an athletic director, but just as a person. There needs to be more people like him involved in the lives of students.”

Navarro believes that the decline in high school participation has a lot to do with the lack of middle school sports and the fact that many students don’t have parental support or the means to join leagues as children. That’s a citywide problem, he said. “Every year, there’s less programming available for our kids in Oakland,” Navarro said. “Our rec centers aren’t thriving, our Boys and Girls Clubs aren’t thriving, our different youth centers throughout the city are not thriving. Even our Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth leagues, our community leagues, there’s less and less kids playing.”

Salazar said he’s hopeful now that Navarro, a “homegrown” Oakland athletics alum, will take over as commissioner. “Now we can get headed in the right direction,” Salazar said.

Navarro was 12 years old when he dragged his mother onto the bus to take him to sign up for Oakland’s Babe Ruth Little League. He’d wanted to sign up before then, but it wasn’t possible. His dad often worked 12-hour shifts, and no one was available to take him to practices. He asked around at school, and some of his classmates told him how and where to sign up. So he and his mom took the bus trip, without telling his dad. He was determined to play.

Navarro grew up near Oakland’s airport, close to 98th Avenue. He comes from a sports family—he said he watched countless Oakland A’s and Mexican Soccer League games on TV when he was a kid. He collected baseball cards. His crown jewels were his Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. cards.

His dad was a huge soccer fan. Navarro used to play with some older cousins, and he discovered he was pretty good at it. But Navarro’s passions were on the baseball field. After his time in Little League, he joined the team at Castlemont. He said he wasn’t the best player, and that’s what drove him to keep playing. “I didn’t want to keep getting put on the bench,” Navarro said. “That’s what I was always chasing. I wanted to get better.”

After high school, he went to the University of Miami, hoping to walk on to their baseball team. He tried out twice, but didn’t make the cut. He graduated with a bachelor’s of business administration in international finance and marketing and got a job as a business banker with Wells Fargo in Oakland.

He was out of the baseball game for a while until his younger brother, Natalio, pulled him back in. Natalio, who is 13 years his junior, remembers being 5 or 6 year old and watching his older brother play baseball. When he was 10, Natalio picked up a baseball himself.

“Franky has always been special to me,” Natalio said. “He always took me to practices and games because my father worked and was always busy. Franky was that guy for me, honestly. He was always looking out for his younger two brothers. Franky was the leader of the pack, always looking out.”

Before Navarro became a professional coach, he would come to his younger brother’s games to cheer him on, still in his suit from his job. Over the years, he deepened his involvement. He became a coach for Natalio’s Little League team, eventually sponsoring the team financially. When Natalio was a sophomore at Castlemont, Navarro started showing up to practices and lending some coaching. By his junior year, Navarro had become the official baseball coach.

Natalio never minded having his older brother as a coach, although they both admit Navarro applied more pressure to Natalio than to the other players. “In Oakland, good baseball coaches are scarce,” Natalio said. “It was big for me having him out there practicing with me, throwing with me, doing batting practice. That was huge for me, honestly.”

One of his fondest memories is when his brother invited him to a weekend in Texas to see the Houston Astros play the St. Louis Cardinals and to meet some real life big leaguers. Navarro had become friends with a player who went pro, and he used the opportunity to show his little brother what life was like in the major leagues. Natalio called the trip “life-changing.”

“That certain experience was a big inspiration for me to keep going and believe that it was only a matter of time with hard work,” he said. He went to pitch at the College of San Mateo.

Navarro’s life changed, too, when his little brother started playing baseball. Navarro was coaching little league when he got a call from a parent named LaVette who wanted to put her son on the team. The two became close friends as he coached her son. Then they started dating. Two years ago, they tied the knot.

And while his life has been defined to some extent by baseball, it’s primarily been defined by Oakland—he even lives in his childhood home by the airport. His favorite professional sports team is the Athletics. About 80 percent of his dad’s side of the family still lives in the area, and birthdays, he said, are basically family reunions.

“Oakland’s home to me,” Navarro said. “My family’s here, and the relationships that I’ve built with this community make it hard to leave. It really excited me to be a change agent in this community.”

Franky Navarro commiserates with a former Oakland Athletic League commissioner at a McClymond's High School football game.
Franky Navarro commiserates with a former Oakland Athletic League commissioner at a McClymond’s High School football game.

As commissioner, Navarro starts his day fielding paperwork for student athletes who are transferring into the district. Then throughout the morning, he meets with vendors and contractors to negotiate deals on things like uniforms and equipment. In the afternoon—if his workload isn’t too heavy—he heads to campuses to meet with administrators and talk to students. He recalls having a good relationship with the OAL commissioner when he was a student, and he wants to develop the same with students today.

Friday nights are dedicated to hitting as many football games as possible. Those nights, Navarro and his wife push their regular dinner date back, often eating together at 11:30 p.m. or midnight.

By the time he’d reached the McClymonds’ football field that Friday night, Navarro had already gone to Skyline to catch the JV and part of the varsity football games. It was the calm before the storm—volleyball games would start the next week, and cross-country season was on the horizon. But this part of the job isn’t too hard for Navarro. “I used to be at these games, anyway,” he said.

As the Warriors played, Navarro spotted his old boss, former Castlemont principal William Chavarin, coming toward him along the sidelines. Chavarin has a new role in athletics as well—he was just named the director of the California Interscholastic Federation, so he plans championship events and supports league commissioners throughout the state.

Chavarin laughed when Navarro referred to him his former boss, saying he never really thought of it that way. He said Navarro helped him settle in when he started at Castlemont, and his experience with the league made him “the right person for the job.”

“We’re in good hands,” Chavarin said, laughing again and clapping Navarro on the shoulder.

Navarro walked the perimeter of the field. Whenever a particularly good play happened—when the opposing team threw a nail-biter and a receiver miraculously caught it in the endzone—his focus shifted entirely to the game. He’d stop in the middle of whatever sentence he had been saying. Then he’d adjust his hat and shift his backpack as he regained his train of thought.

By the time he reached the home team’s zone, he was completely encircled by old friends, colleagues and players. He talked shop with some, laughed with others. It was halftime, and Oakland’s team was losing. But morale was high. It was a chance to call some new plays.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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