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Category: Education, Girls, Health, Sports

America’s Girls Need Sports

| September 27, 2012

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At a time of shrinking budgets for school and college sports programs, the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation reminds us that sports are girls' toolkit for success.

This year will be remembered by some as a progressive milestone for the female gender. In 2012, the United States not only celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that ensures equal access to both men and women in federally funded education programs and activities, but also the year when for the first time in modern history the U.S. Olympic team consisted of more female athletes than male. The golden performances by U.S. women at the games also accounted for 58 percent of the total medal count by Team USA.

There is no arguing that without Title IX, this feat would not have been possible. Title IX was enacted in 1972, when just one in 27 girls participated in high school varsity sports.  As a result of Title IX the number of girls participating in high school varsity sports has increased to about two in five today.  In women’s collegiate programs the increase is more than 500 percent.  While both men’s and women’s sports participation is increasing, the chances for girls’ participation opportunities have not yet reached the boys’ 1971-72 level. Females still have nearly 1.3 million fewer high school and more than 63,000 fewer college sports participation opportunities than males.

Off the field, research demonstrates that girls who participate in sports and physical activity are more likely than inactive girls to have better physical and emotional health, get better grades, and are at a reduced risk of getting involved with drugs or becoming a teen parent.  Simply put, sports give girls a toolkit for success.

Physical activity is a critical component in the healthy development of our nation’s children, especially when more than one-third of America’s children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Girls are at even greater risk, which is why the Women’s Sports Foundation and other like-minded organizations have created national networks to reach girls in underserved communities with quality physical activity programming in a safe and supportive environment. It’s imperative that we expand opportunities for women and girls to play sports and become physically active across communities, cultures, and abilities, paying close attention to African-American and Hispanic girls in urban areas who, through our research, show disproportionately higher rates of inactivity and obesity.

We also know that it is critical to get girls active at a young age because girls who are active in sports during adolescence and young adulthood are 20 percent less likely to get breast cancer later in life.  Girls who play sports in high school go further in their education and are more likely to attend college, which can lead to broader career opportunities and financial stability.

Despite this ever-expanding body of research on the many emotional, physical and social benefits from participation of girls and women in sport and physical activity, in general girls are still not afforded the degree of encouragement or opportunity extended to boys to participate in sports and physical activities. Barriers that hold girls back from playing sports – such as cost, safety, transportation, and social stigma – remain an ongoing reality for parents and caregivers.

The growing culture of pay-to-play for both school and out-of-school sports programs complicates the opportunities, as girls in lower socio-economic families can’t afford to play and may not see scholarship options that enable boys in some of the private programs. Schools have cut resources and requirements for physical activity at all levels – from recess to physical education to extra-curricular sports – as funding and class time have focused on academics in order to meet test standards set forth in No Child Left Behind. Regrettably, this short-sighted prioritization neglects the research showing that girls (and boys) benefit from daily physical activity which helps them perform better academically and increases their time-on-task for a higher quality participation in the classroom experience. And to make matters worse, girls in underserved communities don’t often find facilities that are safe from crime or acceptable in condition. Access to more and better facilities is usually out of walking distance and requires transportation that can be hard to come by in many communities – cars or safe and affordable public transportation.

The barriers to girls’ participation at school punctuate the need for parents to act as advocates and underscore the importance of dedicated community organizations that provide alternative physical activity programming to youth for little or no cost.  For nearly four decades, the Women’s Sports Foundation has worked with thousands of local programs that reach girls who are at the greatest risk for inactivity and obesity, and that promote casual play as a healthy and important complement to organized sports.

As a key issue facing families and communities, we hope society and the media will continue to discuss the physical engagement of America’s girls long after the excitement of the Olympic Games has subsided.  As millions of girls and boys settle in to the classroom this term, we must remember that America’s schoolyards and playing fields don’t yet reflect the same equity as Team USA, and ask the question, are we selling our girls short? We must continually strive to improve the access and opportunity afforded to our daughters, granddaughters, sisters and nieces and, by doing so, promote a happier, healthier and more confident generation of girls who will go on to become strong and successful women in all walks of life.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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