When I was growing up, a lot of people thought there was no place for women in sports. Too many still do.
Those people never met Jean McDonald.
Jean was the editor who hired me for my first job in sports journalism, a field I spent more than two decades in. Sportswriting was—and still is—a business dominated by men. But Jean was smart and demanding and tough in the way pioneers usually are, an expert who prepared me well for my own career.
My former boss came to mind when I heard that Feb. 1 was National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
With events in all 50 states this week, including several in Wisconsin, National Girls and Women in Sports Day is celebrating its 31st year. The theme for this year’s events is Expanding Opportunity: The Power in Play.
It’s remarkable just how much those opportunities have expanded, and what far-reaching benefits have resulted.
The watershed moment for women’s and girls’ sports came with the passing of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX, as it has come to be known, required schools that received federal funds to provide equal athletic opportunities for males and females.
Before Title IX was passed, 295,000 girls participated in high school sports in the U.S., accounting for less than 7% of the country’s varsity athletes. Now nearly 40% of high school girls participate in athletics, a total of more than 3.2 million. In addition to the 10-fold increase on the high school level, there are six times as many women competing in intercollegiate athletics than there were in 1972.
(And despite the perception in some quarters that those gains have come at the expense of opportunities in men’s sports, the number of men and boys competing in high school and college have also increased, just at a slower rate.)
The inherent fairness of allowing girls to enjoy athletic endeavors is reason enough to praise Title IX’s success. But study after study has shown the positive impact sports can have on girls goes well beyond the playing field. Girls who participate in athletics are healthier, have higher self-esteem, lower levels of depression, are less likely to smoke and do drugs, and do better in school than their counterparts. And there are indications that those benefits continue into adulthood: one study found Title IX is partly responsible for women’s increasing achievements in education and employment. Another found lower levels of obesity in adult women who were high school athletes.
National Girls and Women in Sports Day is a chance to both celebrate the progress that has been made and to continue to close the gap in opportunities for sports participation between boys and girls.
Several schools across Wisconsin are holding events on Feb. 4 in honor of National Girls and Women in Sports Day, including the University of Wisconsin, UW-Platteville, UW-River Falls, UW-Oshkosh, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Or you can search for an event near you at the NGWSD website.
If you can, support National Girls and Women in Sports Day. A few of those little girls getting the chance to compete in their favorite sport may even find a career path in sports, like Jean did. But even though most won’t, when opportunity expands, there is power in play.