Girls' Sports: 'The Best of Times, The Worst of Times'

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When the U.S. women's soccer team beat China to take the World Cup in a fan-frenzied Pasadena, Calif., this past summer, a new era in women's sports seemed to emerge.

Girls soccer in particular, already growing in popularity before the July game, got a huge boost from the women's World Cup, and since then, the surge in interest has been felt in youth-soccer leagues and schools nationwide.

‘If you're basing progress on where we were before Title IX, our cup runneth over. But if you're basing it on compliance and equity—equal access to sports, equal facilities and supplies, equal publicity—it's abysmal.’

Mary Jo Kane,
Executive Director,
Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport,
University of Minnesota in Minneapolis

But despite all the news reports and commentary trumpeting that women had finally made it in the world of sports, gender inequities continue to be pervasive, especially in K-12 schools, advocates for women's sports contend. Middle and high school girls still generally have fewer opportunities than boys to play sports, they say, and often have to make do with inferior coaching, equipment, and practice facilities.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination by any institution receiving federal funds, was widely expected to erase inequities in school sports. And though it has worked to do away with the most overt discrimination and to enhance opportunities for thousands of female athletes, women's sports advocates say much work remains to be done.

"It is the best of times and the worst of times," said Mary Jo Kane, the executive director of the Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "If you're basing progress on where we were before Title IX, our cup runneth over. But if you're basing it on compliance and equity--equal access to sports, equal facilities and supplies, equal publicity--it's abysmal."

New Sports, Old Sports

That's not to say that the World Cup victory hasn't generated excitement."There's great interest, and I think you'll see there's going to be tremendous growth" in girls' soccer programs, said Tim Flannery, an associate executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a sports-governance organization in Kansas City, Mo. "I think it's directly attributed to the World Cup victory."

The boom is not just in soccer. In the past few years, other well-publicized strides have been made in women's athletics--the U.S. women's hockey team's 1998 Olympic gold medal, and the Women's National Basketball Association's success among them. A surge in girls' interest in sports has registered with each.

Still, all things in the sporting world are not equal. Participation rates continue to show a big gap between boys and girls. According to the federation, some 2.7 million girls participated in high school athletics last school year, compared with 3.8 million boys.

Because only a few states--such as Florida, Minnesota, and Washington--monitor secondary schools for compliance, the data-gauging progress for school sports programs is scant.

In the states that do keep track, officials say compliance with Title IX is a constant battle.

"It's still not a perfect world," said Darcy Lees, who oversees equity for Washington state's education department. About one-third of the state's 300 districts have had problems meeting Title IX mandates and have had to work with state equity officers, she said.

Corralled for Crew

Many school administrators and athletic directors have more of a Dickensian ''it is the best of times'' outlook when it comes to girls' sports, according to gender-equity experts.

As evidence that girls' sports are getting a fairer shake, athletic officials point to sports they've added to their rosters with Title IX compliance in mind.

Cynthia Doyle, an assistant director of the national federation, said that in addition to soccer, schools are adding girls' lacrosse and field hockey to their lineups.

Fast-pitch softball--which, like girls' soccer, girls' lacrosse, and field hockey, is a sport sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association--has also seen a surge, Ms. Doyle said. Some schools are fielding teams for the first time; others are adding junior-varsity teams.

And girls are slowly crossing over into what traditionally have been all-male sports. For example, ever more girls--some 2,300 last year, according to the sport's sanctioning body, USA Wrestling--are wrestling on high school teams, mostly against boys.

Girls' ice hockey is also catching on, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast. In Minnesota, for example, a state that began sanctioning girls ice hockey five years ago, 112 of the state's 391 high schools now have girls' teams.

"It's taken off here," Dorothy McIntyre, the associate executive director of the Minnesota High School League, said of the girls' game. "It's amazing how long we went without it."

Crew, too, has sprung up as a popular girls' sport in the past few years, although its costs and geographic demands can pose obstacles, Ms. Doyle said.

"Rowing wasn't even a women's sport until '76--now it's big," said Jim Mitchell, an assistant crew coach at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Each school with a NCAA Division I women's rowing team can offer up to 20 full scholarships, he said. But with so few high schools offering crew, coaches like Mr. Mitchell have been seeking out tall, athletically built female students on high school and college campuses and inviting them to try out.

"If they stand out on campus, if they're tall and big, we pull them aside," he said.

While advocates for girls and women in sports laud most such efforts, debate continues over whether some new additions to school offerings are just envisioned as an easy way to meet Title IX mandates.

Flag football, competitive weight lifting, and rhythmic gymnastics--better known as cheerleading--aren't sanctioned by the NCAA or state high school associations. Schools that sponsor them say such sports are easy to put together because they're low in cost, physically rigorous, and popular among participants.

No Scholarships

But critics say such activities allow schools to skirt state and federal equity requirements. Moreover, because they aren't recognized by the NCAA, they offer no scholarship opportunities to their female participants.

"It's an outrage," Ms. Kane said of the new sports. "It shows the cynicism that school administrators have for this law and women's sports."

But school officials fielding such sports say they're simply meeting demand. Flag football is "what the girls wanted," said J. Howard Hinesley, the superintendent of the Pinellas County, Fla., schools, which recently established a program. "We offer athletics based on interest, not on whether college scholarships are available. ... Very few students get scholarships."

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as Girls' Sports: 'The Best of Times, The Worst of Times'
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Web Resources
  • Girl Power!, from the Department of Health and Human Services, includes a directory of sites related to girls' participation in sports.
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