Ode to Billie Jean, and thanks to 40 years of girls in cleats

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Softball season for Maya ends tomorrow. Tomorrow night, they play their “Championship Game.” Really, she is in a learning league where the goal is to help kids improve their softball skills. In other words, the really good players are there, but few in number. This is a good fit for Maya, as the poor girl was thrown into the shallow end of the athletic gene pool. But she has fun and I think it is important to play something. The importance of athletics for girls, even a non-athletic girl, has been reinforced lately in the news. The reason for the news stories: the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

Times have changed so much since Title IX was passed in 1972. Back  then, about the time I was born, phones were barbarically attached to the wall by a cord. Gas station attendants waited by your car window while you told them to “Fill it up, unleaded.” Our massive console television, with the 2 knobs that got 5 channels (the 3 networks plus PBS and the local UHF channel) took up an entire wall of our wood paneled living room. Computers were something you might see at work but never imagined holding on your lap while sitting on your couch. And, only 7 percent of all high school athletes were girls. That has changed tenfold in 40 years. Girls now make up 41 percent of high school athletes.

It isn’t just a numbers thing. Even the cultural thinking about girls in sports has changed in 40 years. Back then, only hardcore athletic girls played sports (and were presumed to be lesbians). About this time, a 55-year-old former tennis player, Bobby Riggs, was so convinced that only men were really athletes that he challenged the top female tennis player in the world to a match. Luckily, Billie Jean King kicked his ass, a victory that meant far more than the prize money she won. Our own research shows this cultural shift. When my graduate student, Jenna (who happens to be Maya’s softball coach), asked middle school kids to describe a popular girl, a lot of kids, both boys and girls, described a girl who is good at sports. That would not have happened even 15 years ago.

Things aren’t perfect yet. Twenty percent of the public does not support Title IX. They think it “takes away” from the “real sports,” like football and basketball. And, the most popular female athletes are the ones who happen to be attractive and who like to pose in their underwear on mens‘ magazine covers.

But regardless of how far girls in sports have come, and how far they still have to go, playing sports is simply good for girls. When they play sports, they are less likely to drink, smoke, be depressed or anxious, get pregnant, or think poorly about their bodies. Think this doesn’t relate to your kids?

Keep in mind that recent studies show that 12 percent of 10- and 11-year old girls want to be thinner, 27 percent of 11- to 16-year old girls have drunk so much that they have been sick or out of control, and more than 35 percent of 16- to 21-year old girls admit to having unprotected sex. Playing sports reduces these numbers.

No one really knows why sports are so good for girls. Maybe it is focusing on their bodies being strong and powerful (rather than skinny and simply something for boys to ogle) that helps girls feel empowered, maybe it is relying on teammates that helps girls feel part of something bigger than themselves, maybe it is having a group of adults literally and figuratively cheering them on that boosts their self-esteem. Whatever the reason, sports are good for all girls, not just the athletic ones. So thanks to the 40 years of girls who played sports even when it wasn’t cool. And even though my girl likes to play in the dirt instead of watch for pop flies, and has been hit by a pitch more than once this season, she will always play something, whatever something she finds the most fun, regardless of the scoreboard.


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