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It's all about the right to play

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Limits on games hurts girls

By Jenna McKenna

The Florida High School Athletic Association has released the results of its 2007-2008 sports participation survey. You can read it at http://www.fhsaa.org/programs/participation/2008_09.asp. Coincidentally, or not, FHSAA board also was scheduled to meet this Wednesday to (hopefully) rescind its recent decision to reduce schedules by 20 percent for all high school sports except football and cheerleading. A Title IX lawsuit filed last month in Jacksonville is surely one reason for reconsidering the policy.

My first thought on looking at the table, which breaks down participation by boys and girls, grade by grade and sport by sport, is that it tells a lot, but not nearly enough. I am sure the numbers will provide fuel for the debate on whether FHSAA should overturn the schedule reductions, which, as the lawsuit points out, will impact about 36,000 more girls than boys.

We learn from the survey's raw numbers that although boys outnumber girls in Florida high schools by about 8,000, about 40,000 more boys than girls play sports.

That number alone will be enough to draw comments that girls don't want or need to play sports as much as boys do, and that it's a waste of resources to provide teams or “force” them into playing. These are the comments people make every time a survey shows that more boys play sports than girls.

I wish the FHSAA survey could show results in more categories, such as participation differences by population density or by percent free or reduced lunches at the school. Household income makes a difference in who can afford to buy shoes or not have to hold an after school job. Kids who live far from their schools can have a harder time getting to practices than kids who live nearby. If we knew more about these school demographics then we'd know more about which boys and girls participate in high school sports, and why.

I want to tell you a story about equal opportunity that might explain why participation stats can be misleading. In the early 1980s, I was a student in a Catholic middle school in Cincinnati. The year before, my school had a girls' basketball team for the first time in several years. All my friends and I played, and we had a great time and learned a lot. The following year, we all tried to sign up for basketball again, but the coach from the previous year hadn't returned, and nobody bothered to look for another coach for us. They didn't have to – as a religious private school, they weren't bound to Title IX standards.

“You don't need to play basketball,” the principal told us when we asked.

“You can cheer for the boys' team.”

Here's the sad part: we did. We sewed our own uniforms, practiced cheers, tumbling and pyramids unsupervised on the school's asphalt parking lot, and paid our own fares on the city bus to go cheer at the boys' basketball games, while they rode with their coaches on a school-funded bus.

Because of my middle school's attitude toward sports for girls, I barely played high school sports. I had always played youth soccer, so I kept it up in high school, but I wanted to play basketball too. I didn't even try out, though, because I was afraid I wasn't good enough. Writing about it now, almost 30 years later, I'm mad and embarrassed all over again. Just the memory of it makes me want to fight.

I want to fight every time I hear somebody say that girls don't want or need equal opportunities in sports, as if the fact that many of them don't play should tell you all you need to know about their motives. Girls frequently have to care for their younger siblings (or, increasingly, their own children), yet boys seldom do. Some girls' parents can't afford shoes, or can't drive them to practice. Some girls' homes are so chaotic they can't get academically eligible. Some girls' parents just don't think sports are important. Most boys' programs have infrastructure – we call them boosters – to help out with some problems like those mentioned above. I think it's great – boys should have other adults in their community to advocate for them and help them overcome obstacles in their lives. Girls should too.

The whole reason we enforce equal opportunity in public school sports is because we believe that, as FHSAA says, “interscholastic sports are an extension of the classroom.” If we think that sports are an avenue to current and future success, in terms of academics, college opportunities and careers, it's obvious we must provide boys and girls an equal chance to play, regardless of how well or how much they play.

If you think the boys' teams at your school are suffering because of unwarranted resources going to girls' teams that are too dysfunctional to merit them, maybe you could look into what the real problems are for the girls in your school.

Just don't tell me it's because girls don't want to play.