For Girls, the Constant Variety of Sport Still Lacks a Level Playing Field

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Photo Courtesy of Randy son Of Robert

Photo Courtesy of Randy son of Robert

Forty years ago, the passage of a federal statute known as Title IX prohibited federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against people on the basis of sex. The law turned out to hold great implications for women on school athletic teams, increasing the number of girls in high school athletics from about 300,000 in 1971 to well over 3 million in 2011. 

But despite this dramatic change, compared to boys, girls continue to find far fewer chances to play sports in school. And their sports teams are often treated quite differently: playing in inferior facilities, games in off-season slots at inconvenient times, an inequality, advocates say, that keeps millions of girls from the lifelong advantages of school athletics. 

Organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation, the National Women’s Law Center and the nonprofit after-school organization Girls Inc. are pushing for federal legislation that would make it easier for parents and communities to learn how their schools divide athletic resources between boys and girls. 

“I think a lot of people think that 40 years after Title IX that everything is fine. My point is that the law’s work is not done,” said Neena Chaudhry, director of equal opportunities in athletics at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. “We get a lot of calls regularly at the law center from parents and coaches talking about facilities where girls are playing on a rundown field while boys have the newer, better facilities; about girls wanting to play particular sports that schools are not offering.” 

Schools already collect and report data about the resources they devote to boys’ and girls’ teams to their state athletic associations, but only Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Kentucky require the data to be publicly available, said Andrea Wolf, the public policy director at Girls Inc. 

In every other state, parents must file a Freedom of Information Act request to learn how many boys play on their school sports teams compared to girls, how many coaches are female, and how much funding each team receives. Filing a FOIA request is a burden that makes it unlikely for many parents, especially those who are single or low-income, to obtain the information necessary to lobby for their daughters to have greater opportunities in sports, advocates said.

Access to sports in school is especially important for children from low-income communities who can’t afford private sporting clubs, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who works as the director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. 

When schools encourage more girls to take part in athletics, they are encouraging behavior that promotes academic success and leads to lifelong physical and psychological benefits, several advocates said. Girls who play sports are more likely to graduate from high school, have higher GPAs and have higher scores on standardized tests than those who don’t play, several advocates pointed out. 

“The characteristics that allow them to succeed on the playing field are also those that propel them to academic success and to employment,” Wolf said.

The proven effect on graduation rates is particularly important given the high drop-out rates of girls of color, Wolf said: nearly half of Native American girls don’t graduate on time, and neither do 41 percent of African American and Hispanic girls. 

Girls who participate in sports in school are also less likely to be obese in adulthood and suffer from heart disease, diabetes or osteoporosis, several advocates pointed out.

Many schools assert they are in compliance with Title IX rules if they offer girls and boys an equal number of sports teams, Hogshead-Makar said. But a 12-member girls’ volleyball program is not the same as a 120-member boys’ football program, she pointed out.

Wolf agreed. “A school could legitimately say they have six girls’ teams and six boys’ teams but the number of available slots is disproportionate,” she said.

Colleges and universities are already required to disclose data on gender equity in their intercollegiate sports programs by a federal law passed in 1994 called the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act. The U.S. Department of Education runs a websiteallowing the public to research and download data from a particular institution or to aggregate data from a group. 

Advocates are asking Congress to require high schools to do the same. They spent a day on Capitol Hill this week meeting with staffers, including those of Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), to ask for their support of the High School Data Transparency Act, S. 217 and H.R. 455.

The bills was introduced this week by Sen. Patty Murray (D.-Wash.) and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D.-N.Y.) to the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives respectively, and would require high schools that receive federal funding to make physical education a core requirement for graduation, and to report, among other things, how many boys and girls participate in their athletic programs and the amount of funding available to each program. 

These bills would increase transparency in schools and help expose inequalities being borne by girls so that parents, communities and advocates could figure out what to do next, Wolf said. 

It’s no less critical than math class, Hogshead-Makar said. “I would say one of the most important decisions that a parent can make for their kid is to get them into a sport.”

Photo Courtesy of Randy Son Of Robert