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




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.

Girls on the golf course

It has been a big week for women in golf. After Augusta, there was a lot of talk about how women in business can be excluded from important social networks by not hanging out with bigwigs on the links.  Condoleeza Rice may be as famous now for being the first woman into Augusta National Golf Club as being the first African American female Secretary of State.  Allowing women into the elite golf club was about more than golf; it was about allowing women to play with the big boys.

photoThere is always an interesting consequence of women breaking these barriers. Future young women and girls won’t even know there was once a barrier. It means that girls can play golf without ever thinking about the possibility of being excluded. Most golfers will never play at courses like Augusta. Most play on their local, public golf course. But now, for girls, there is no end point. No place where they are automatically excluded because of their anatomy.

And, as with many sports, there are a lot of great things about golf for girls. According to a great article about “Girls, Golf, and Fitness”, playing 18 holes involves walking at least four miles, which is healthy for everyone. Plus, it provides an opportunity for girls to exercise and be active with their families. For my daughter, for whom socializing is an art form, playing a game where you can interact with others is ideal. Thanks to Title IX, there are golf teams at most high schools, and because girls have been traditionally underrepresented in golf, there are quite a few golf scholarships to go around.

So for the price of a set of junior clubs, and $8.00 course fees (for a round at my local course), my kids can get exercise, family fun, and a useful skill for their future lives as CEOS (ok, I will settle for Secretary of State). Not bad.