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The Battle for Gender Equity in Athletics in Elementary and Secondary Schools

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Athletic Opportunities for Girls Remain Unequal.

Despite the fact that Title IX has opened many doors for young women in athletics, schools across the country are still not providing equal opportunities for girls to participate in sports and are not treating girls’ teams equally in terms of benefits and resources.  Girls, particularly girls of color, receive far fewer opportunities to play sports than do boys, as well as inferior treatment in areas such as equipment, facilities, coaching, and publicity. Although data on gender equity in athletics are not as readily available at the elementary/secondary level as they are at the college level, the available information indicates that discrimination against girls and young women in athletics is every bit as much of a problem in elementary/secondary schools as it is in colleges.

  • Schools are providing 1.3 million fewer chances for girls to play sports in high school as compared to boys.[1] In 1972, only 295,000 girls competed in high school sports, a mere 7.4% of all high school athletes, compared to 3.67 million boys.[2]  By the 2010-2011 school year, the number of girls had swelled to 3.2 million, while the number of boys was 4.5 million.[3]
  • Less than two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic girls play sports, while more than three quarters of Caucasian girls do.
  • Three quarters of boys from immigrant families are involved in athletics, while less than half of girls from immigrant families are.[4]    
Girls Face Inequities Nationwide.

Complaints of discrimination at the middle and high school levels involve schools providing inadequate participation opportunities for girls and inferior treatment for female students and athletes.

  • Arizona: In 2010, the National Women’s Law Center filed an administrative complaint challenging girls’ lack of opportunities to play sports in Deer Valley Unified School District in Arizona.[5]  During the investigation of the case, the district decided to add girls’ badminton, and the result demonstrated that, “If you build it, they will come.” All five schools in the district easily fielded teams, with four teams having over 20 girls show up for tryouts. At the end of the first season, many  coaches noted the enthusiasm of the girls and expressed optimism about the continued growth of the sport next season.[6] 
  • Florida:  In 2009, in an effort to save money, the Florida High School Athletics Association implemented cuts in the numbers of games scheduled for teams statewide. The association  specifically spared football from any cuts, however, ensuring that girls would shoulder a greater burden of the reductions. After parents sued, the FHSAA responded by claiming that the cuts were not discriminatory because football is technically a co-ed sport, even though only eight of the state’s 40,400 football players were girls.[7]  While the FHSAA reversed its scheduled cuts as a result of the successful Title IX complaint, individual districts have stated publicly that they will nonetheless limit their games in the same manner, thereby disproportionately disadvantaging female students.[8]
  • North Carolina: In 2009, parents at a high school in Richmond complained that the boys’ baseball team had exclusive access to the only baseball field with lights, while the girls were forced to cut games short after playing on an unlit field.  There were also complaints that boys’ teams received greater publicity through local radio advertisements.  In response to a Title IX complaint, the District agreed to begin building a comparable field for the girls’ softball team.[9]
  • Maryland: In 2006, in response to complaints about the treatment of girls’ softball teams, Prince George’s County Public Schools entered into a comprehensive, county-wide agreement with the National Women's Law Center.  PGCPS agreed to ensure Title IX compliance by each county middle and high school, including making improvements to the girls’ softball fields, such as adding protective fencing, backstops, dugouts, storage sheds, and batting cages; treating girls’ teams equally in terms of  scheduling of games and practice times, equipment, uniforms, publicity, and locker rooms; and providing annual  reports showing the progress it has made toward these goals, including participation rates, funding received, and plans for expenditures of funds.[10]

The Importance of Equal Sports Opportunities for Girls

Ensuring that girls have equal opportunities to play sports is critical.  Studies show that sports participation has a positive influence on girls’ academic and employment paths, as well as their physical and psychological health.[11]  

Greater Academic Success
  • By a 3-1 ratio, female athletes “do better in school, do not drop out, and have a better chance to get through college.”[12]
  • Young women who play sports are more likely to graduate from high school, have higher grades, and score higher on standardized tests than non-athletes.[13] This pattern of greater academic achievement is consistent across community income levels.[14]
  • Female athletes are more likely to do well in science classes than their classmates who do not play sports.[15]
  • Female athletes of color consistently benefit from increased academic success. Female Hispanic athletes are more likely than non-athletes to improve their academic standing, graduate from high school, and attend college.[16] 
Increased Career Opportunities
  • One study showed that being a high school athlete was associated with 14 percent higher wages for women, even when controlling for other factors.[17]
  • Another study using state-level data concluded that an increase in female sports participation leads to an increase in women’s labor force participation down the road and greater female participation in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly high-skill, high-wage ones.[18]
  • A number of successful women played organized sports as girls and credit their athletic participation with helping prepare them well for the business world: “Of 401 executive businesswomen surveyed, 82 percent reported playing organized sports while growing up, including school teams, intramurals, and recreational leagues.”[19]
Responsible Social Behaviors
  • High school athletes are less likely to smoke cigarettes[20] or use drugs[21] than their peers who don’t play sports.  One study found that female athletes are 29% less likely to smoke than non-athletes.[22]  
  • Adolescent female athletes have lower rates of both sexual activity and pregnancy. In fact, female athletes are less than half as likely to become pregnant as their peers who are not athletes.[23]  This is true for white, African-American, and Latina female athletes.[24]
Health Benefits
  • Obesity is an emerging children’s health epidemic and a particular concern for girls of color.  African-American girls are more likely to be overweight than white girls.  Of girls aged 6 to 11, 24.8% of African-American girls, compared to almost 16% of white girls, are overweight.  Of girls aged 12 to 19, 23.8% of African-American girls and 14.6% of white girls are overweight.[25] 
  • Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of obesity for adolescent girls.[26]  It can also have positive health effects later in life.  The New York Times recently highlighted research showing that women who played sports while young had a 7 percent lower risk of obesity 20 to 25 years later, when women were in their late 30s and early 40s. The study notes that while a 7 percent decline in obesity is modest, “no other public health program can claim similar success.”[27]
  • Minority girls are more likely to participate in sports through their schools than through private organizations,[28] rendering it even more critical that they have equal access to school-sponsored sports to enable them to be physically active.
  • Sports participation decreases a young woman's chance of developing heart disease, osteoporosis, and other health related problems.[29] 
  • Women who participate in sports significantly reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.[30]
Improved Mental Health and Increased Personal Skills
  • Girls who play sports report better health, body image, popularity, and an overall higher quality of life, compared to girls who don’t play sports.[31]
  • One study showed that the difference in self-reported life satisfaction for girls who play sports versus girls who do not is greater than the difference for boys.[32]

Are you concerned about sports inequities at your school? Call NWLC @ 1.855.HERGAME


[1] National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), 2010-11 High School Athletics Participation Survey (2011).

[2] National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), 1971 Sports Participation Survey (1971).

[3] NFHS, 2010-11 High School Athletics Participation Survey (2011).

[4], Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America, 14-15, 161 (East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2008). 

[5] National Women’s Law Center, “Rally for Girls’ Sports: She’ll Win More Than a Game”, November 10, 2010.

[6] Emerick, Tyler, “Deer Valley School District gives badminton a try,” The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com, October 27, 2011.

[7] Katie Thomas, “Florida Drops Budget Plan That Favored Prep Football,” The New York Times, July 16, 2009.

[8] See Eduardo Encina, “Hillsborough County to Retain Number of Sponsored Contests,” Tampabay.com Blogs, Jul. 29, 2009 (quoting officials saying they will follow FHSAA’s proposed cuts); Buddy Collings, “FHSAA Votes To Rescind Cuts in High School Game Schedules,” Orlando Sentinel, July 15, 2009 (citing four counties that independently decided to lower schedule limits without touching football).

[9] Philip D. Brown, "Schools looking to build new field to satisfy Title IX probe." www.yourdailyjournal.com, May  25, 2010.

[10] See National Women’s Law Center, “Prince George’s County Public Schools Title IX Agreement,” available at http://www.nwlc.org/details.cfm?id=2842&section=athletics.

[11] Carnegie Corporation, The Role of Sports in Youth Development (March 1996), available at http://www.carnegie.org/sub/pubs/reports/poinst1.htm#develop.

[12] NFHS, The Case for High School Activities (2008), available at http://www.nfhslearn.com/pdf/2008_case_for_highschool_activities.pdf

[13] Id. (A state-wide, three year study by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association found that athletes had higher grade point averages (by almost a full grade point), lower dropout rates, and higher high school graduation rates, than their nonathletic peers.).

[14] Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America, 115-117 (East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2008).

[15] Sabo, D., Miller, K. E., Melnick, M. J. & Heywood, L., Her Life Depends On It: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls 52 (East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2004).

[16] Sabo D., Minorities in Sports: the Effect of Varsity Sports Participation on the Social, Educational, and Career Mobility of Minority Students 14 (East Meadow, NY, Women’s Sports Foundation 1989).

[17] Stevenson, Betsey. “Beyond the Classroom: Using Title IX to Measure the Return to High School Sports.” (Cambridge, MA: NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010) 4 http://www.nber.org/papers/w15728.

[18] Betsey Stevenson, Beyond the Classroom: Using Title IX to Measure the Return to High School Sports 23-24 (Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Research, Working Paper No. 15728, 2010).

[19] Oppenheimer/MassMutual Financial Group, Successful Women Business Executives Don’t Just Talk a Good Game — They Play(ed) One (2002).

[20] Sabo, D. Her Life Depends On It, (East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2009) 29

[21] The Case for High School Activities, supra note 14, at 4.

[22] Melnick, M.J., Miller, K.E., Sabo, D., Farrell, M.P., and Barnes, G.M. “Tobacco use among high school athletes and nonathletes: Results of the 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.” Adolescence, 36: 727-747 (2001).

[23] See, e.g., T. Dodge and J. Jaccard, Participation in Athletics and Female Sexual Risk Behavior: The Evaluation of Four Causal Structures, 17 Journal of Adolescent Research 42 (2002); The Women’s Sports Foundation Report: Sport and Teen Pregnancy (1998) at 5-7; accord The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Report, Physical Activity & Sports in the Lives of Girls (Spring 1997).

[24] D. Sabo, et al., The Women’s Sports Foundation Report: Sport and Teen Pregnancy, 7 (1998).

[25] Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics, Prevalence of Overweight Among Children and Adolescence: United States, 2003-2004 (2006).

[26] The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Report, Catch the Ball, available at http://www.fitness.gov/catch.pdf.

[27] Tara Parker-Pope, As Girls Become Women, Sports Pay Dividends, N.Y. Times, Feb. 16, 2010, at D5, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/health/16well.htm (last visited July 16, 2010); Robert Kaestner and Xin Xu, Title IX, Girls’ Sports Participation, and Adult Female Physical Activity and Weight, 34 Eval. Rev. 52­ (2010).

[28] Women's Sports Foundation, The Wilson Report: Moms, Dads, Daughters and Sports 5 (June 7, 1988).  

[29] See generally Her Life Depends On It, supra note 16; Dorothy Teegarden, et al., “Previous Physical Activity Relates to Bone Mineral in Young Woman,” 28 Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 105-13, Vol. 28 (1996).

[30] Leslie Bernstein et al., “Physical Exercise and Reduced Risk of Breast Cancer in Young Women,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 86, No. 18 (Sept. 21, 1994); see also Marilie D. Gamon, et al., “Does Physical Activity Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer?” Menopause, Vol. 3, No. 3, 172-80 (1996).

[31] Sabo, D. and Veliz, P. Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America, 96-109 (East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation, 2008).

[32] Zullig, Keith J. & Rebecca J. White “Physical Activity, Life Satisfaction and Self-Rated Health of Middle School Students.” Applied Research Quality of Life  (2010).