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Are Sports Ready for Girls?




Excerpted from
Raising Our Athletic Daughters : How Sports Can Build Self-Esteem And Save Girls' Lives

While we've been worrying about the pressures facing our daughters, another force has been building, a dramatic shift in how girls approach their lives, their bodies, their selves. From cradle to college, more and more girls now consider participation in sports their birthright. That in itself is astonishing, given the barriers erected over the years to keep athletics "for boys only." What is even more compelling is that this is largely a children's crusade, spearheaded by our daughters themselves. Today, a star on the girls' high school basketball team can be voted homecoming queen, a combination that would have been exceptional even a generation ago, when the Baby Boomers were in their teens.

Until recently, the sweat and hard physical work required for most sports weren't considered compatible with growing up female. Even today many adults carry this baggage. Mothers as well as fathers may feel a bit discomfited when they see their daughters competing aggressively, especially in tough sports such as wrestling, football, or boxing. Through the experience of parenting, a whole generation raised amid the egalitarian ideals of the women's movement has confronted its own uncertainty about sex roles. Becoming a parent tends to traditionalize a relationship. Responsibilities once shared are suddenly divided into "women's work" and "men's work." And our increasing conformity to tradition comes at the same time we begin to raise our children. We may feel ambivalence about this, but we fall back on biology as some sort of immutable constant, a force that cannot be resisted or swayed. "I know I shouldn't say this," begins the nominally enlightened mother or father, before confessing, "but boys and girls are different-they just are"

Yes, we should accept and celebrate the difference. But where does biology end and acculturation begin? What kind of messages, subtle and otherwise, do we send our children from birth? What do our daughters learn when they detect our discomfort if they come home dirty, or with their clothes torn, or with a scrape on the knee? How about the pinprick of discomfort we might feel when they triumph over a boy in an athletic contest, or become fanatical about baseball, or start to lift weights? There might be a rare parent who can answer truthfully that girls as much as boys own the athletic experience, but the rest of us have a way to go.

Luckily, our discomfort hasn't stopped many of our daughters. "The public," says Anna Seaton Huntington, Olympic rower and America's Cup sailor, "accustomed to a diet of simple sweethearts and ever ambivalent about aggressive women, may initially balk at the knowledge that most female athletes don't care what they look like, sound like, or smell like as long as they are crossing the finish line first." Girls aren't waiting for a blessing on what is "suitable" activity for young ladies. Jettisoning such stereotypes as "girls don't sweat" and "girls don't get dirty," they are jumping headlong into all sorts of activities that have long been the exclusive domain of boys, as well as some new sports their mothers might not have heard of, much less considered appropriate. They are engaging in strenuous games of soccer, softball, basketball, and volleyball. Today's girls snowboard and pile into rugby scrums and race mountain bikes. They throw unhittable fastballs and run blistering sprints.

Over the last two decades the whole culture of American school sports has been transformed, and many of the changes have to do with the way we approach sports for girls and women. In 1970, only 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports. Today that ratio is 1 in 3. The hard numbers are that fewer than 300,000 high school girls were on a school sports team in 1971, while they were 2,367,936 strong in 1995. More than 16,000 high schools (out of a nationwide total of 20,000) now have a girls' basketball team. All this during a period when the athletic participation of boys remained fairly flat, at around 3 million. According to one survey, a healthy majority of parents (87 percent) now agree with the proposition that sports are equally important for girls and boys. Here is an enormous change, a fundamental change, in what girls do. And it has led to changes in how girls view themselves.

Recognition of women's athletics gained tremendous momentum in the wake of the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. In an unprecedented hat trick, American women swept the three most popular team sports, gaining gold medals in softball, basketball, and soccer. Only a bronze in volleyball prevented a gold medal grand slam. NBC declared the Atlanta Olympics "The Year of the Woman." The network delivered a whole pantheon of female athletes using richly textured profiles. America responded, with female viewership soaring to record levels. It wasn't the first time women athletes became hugely popular stars, but that summer there were more of them and in a greater variety of sports. Our daughters witnessed the lough, in-the-dirt play of Dot Richardson, who although the oldest member of the U.S. women's softball team stood out as its leader. Legions of new fans cheered as charismatic soccer star Mia Hamm and her teammates utterly dominated the sport. Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie gave girls a basketball Dream Team all their own. Never has there been an Olympics that has burned so many female names into the popular memory.

It happened again at Nagano in 1998, when the spoils of the Winter Olympics also seemed to belong to the women. Women's figure skating was once more the most popular sport in the games, and the battle between Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski was front-page news around the world. Perennial crowd favorite Picabo Street skied to a dramatic hundredth-of-a-second gold in downhill. That she did so months after recovering from knee surgery and just weeks after a serious headlong collision sent a powerful message about her physical toughness and female athletes' perseverance in the face of adversity. The American women's ice hockey team played impeccably in its march to the gold medal, besting Canada in a final game marked by a fierce-and highly entertaining-rivalry. The men's hockey team, on the other hand, could muster only a seventeenth-place finish and was disgraced by a room-trashing incident that left behind an image of churlishness and lack of good sportsmanship. Commentators suggested that here was the contrast between men's and women's sports in a nutshell: the women playing a good, clean, highly competitive game, and the men behaving as if they were spoiled babies. It was one of those moments when our vision of what women can do in sports was significantly expanded. The Olympic Commission voted just before Nagano that no new sport would be added to the official Olympic roster unless it was played by both female and male athletes.

The success of the female Olympians helped pave the way for something that had been tried repeatedly in decades past, but never with success: professional women's sports leagues. During the year leading up to the 1996 Summer Olympics, the sponsorship muscle of the National Basketball Association had been put in the service of the women's USA team. NBA commissioner David Stern had closely monitored the unprecedented year-long undefeated streak of the gold medalists as they played in tournaments all around the country, against college teams, and all around the world, against other national teams.

In April 1996 Stern announced the formation of the Women's National Basketball Association. It was only one of two new leagues for women created that year. The American Basketball League was formed as well, with a different season (fall/winter instead of summer) and a different philosophy (concentrating on cities where women's college ball was traditionally popular rather than on larger NBA markets) than the WNBA. Both leagues featured players who previously had been forced to make their professional money in women's leagues overseas, as well as college-fresh stars such as Jennifer Azzi, Rebecca Lobo, and Lisa Leslie.

Once again, as it had with the Olympics, the public, particularly the female public, responded. The WNBA forecast an audience of four thousand per game, but instead averaged three times that number. The league quickly succeeded in "moving the fabric"-to accommodate the larger crowds, arenas had to move back the curtain they used to mask empty seats. With their husbands, with their sons, with sisters and friends, but most especially with their daughters, women showed up to scream and shout and go wild It was a phenomenon waiting to happen. NBA superstar and NBC commentator Reggie Miller suddenly became "Cheryl Miller's brother," a reference to the Phoenix Mercury coach and former USC standout. Spike Lee, a courtside fixture at NBA games, brought a new fan to New York Liberty games, his four-year-old daughter. USA Today, after ignoring the season's initial games, was forced to bow to readers' demands that it provide more extensive coverage. The success of the WNBA and the ABL spawned plans for a host of new professional leagues for women, including soccer, ice hockey, and fastpitch softball.

In the midst of the WNBA's inaugural season, Title IX had a birthday. (Officially, the legislation is termed Amendment IX of the Civil Rights Act, but today it is universally known as Title IX.) It had been twenty-five years since the federal government mandated that all educational institutions receiving taxpayers' money must provide equal opportunity to both sexes in all programs. The occasion allowed for broad-stroke assessments of the state of women's sports in America. Originally designed to get more women onto university faculties, Title IX had a largely unforeseen collateral effect on athletic programs. Title IX worked to get girls the uniforms, locker room space, playing fields, practice times, and program offerings that they needed to compete in athletics.



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