If You Build It, They Will Come. In Droves.
Working on the issue of Title IX and athletics, the thing I hear most from opponents is that “girls just aren’t that interested in sports.” At NWLC, we believe strongly in the mantra “if you build it they will come.” I know it’s true because I’ve watched my sister do just that at a middle school in California.
When my sister, Sarah Egan, started teaching at Benjamin Franklin Intermediate School in 2009, there were only two girls’ basketball teams with about 20 players between them. The boys’ basketball program, on the other hand, was vibrant, had many teams, and over 70 participants. Basketball was a big part of the culture of Ben Franklin, the students talked about it in the hallways all the time, but girls’ participation numbers were extremely low.
|Members of the Benjamin Franklin girls’ basketball program attending a Stanford women’s basketball game. Coach Sarah Egan is pictured on the lower left.|
Benjamin Franklin is in Daly City, CA – just south of the San Francisco city line. It’s a predominantly low-income Title I school that is 94% minority. More than half of the kids receive free or reduced lunch. Unlike their suburban counterparts, that many of the girls at Ben Franklin lack the access and confidence garnered through early exposure to team sports. Most had never stepped foot on the court.
“I knew and understood the impact that sports had on my life and knew that it could have the same impact on others. I wanted more girls and I set out to find them,” Sarah said. She spent the majority of the first two seasons recruiting players and demonstrating how to shoot with one hand instead of two, how to make a jump stops, and how to pivot. Her first year coaching, the teams had a 3-13 record. The next year wasn’t any better.
But things have started to turn around.
This year the girls are off to a 6-7 start. Eighty girls showed up for six weeks of mandatory open gym before they even got a chance to try-out for the team. Ben Franklin now has 40 girls playing on four girls’ basketball teams – double what it was only two seasons ago. The program boasts five coaches and an assistant coach – all recruited by Sarah.
My sister says the transformation started when she first set foot on the court. Before, the girls only had male basketball coaches. “Discovering that a woman can be feminine and athletic was a huge realization for a lot of girls,” Sarah said. After showing her girls that women can play sports, the next step was building up some team spirit. “Middle school can be a very divisive time for girls. Providing the girls with a safe place and creating a family-like environment with trust and companionship was huge. Playing on a team created an automatic bond that isn't easy to find at the middle school level,” Sarah said.
First, Sarah set up a snack schedule and team meetings. She started taking the girls on outings to watch high school and college games in the area. She held a March Madness party and taught the girls to fill out a bracket. She hosted an end of the year reception where many girls received an award for the first time. Sarah says the biggest thing was actually quite small - she set up a team picture for the girls. She staged the photo shoot herself and developed the pictures at Costo to keep the photos affordable. For the first time, the girls were able to own and keep a document of their time playing sports.
|Members of the Benjamin Franklin girls’ basketball program attend a Cal Bears game.|
But motivation wasn’t the only problem – the girls suffered from a lack of resources. Practice facilities and equipment are managed by the boys’ sports program, which meant fighting for equal time and good equipment. When Sarah started coaching, the girls were provided with cheap reversible tops in boys’ sizes. “It may seem trivial; but it is a real issue for middle school girls. They are easily embarrassed and still getting use to their bodies. Wearing a uniform that is clearly not designed for their body can be daunting,” Sarah said.
Sarah took matters into her own hands. She sent out letter, emails, and called local businesses. She lobbied friends and families, fundraising inside her own personal network. GTM Sportswear generously donated two sets of uniforms: tops fitted for girls and matching shorts. Matt Lottich Life Skills Basketball Camp donated seven scholarships for basketball camp. San Francisco State, the University of San Francisco, and Stanford all donated free tickets to their women’s basketball games. The University of California at Berkeley donated tickets and threw the girls a pizza party attended by members of the Cal Bears women’s team. Sarah organized a 3-on-3 tournament for the school and an alumni game to raise money. Her hustling resulted in another two sets of new uniforms designed to fit her players.
|Members of the Benjamin Franklin girls’ basketball show-off their brand-new uniforms.|
Sarah says her biggest challenge continues to be finding women to coach. She wants her girls to have more female role models. She says she has also struggled convincing parents to let their girls play. She works with a large number of immigrant parents who, she says, do not always see the benefits of having their daughters in a sports program.
Difficulties aside, the change in her students has been enormous. Sarah says, “The girls that play come to school with an entirely different attitude. They are significantly more social and more likely to answer questions in class. I have watched girls be completely transformed after joining the team – both socially and academically. Being on the team makes them feel valued and gives them a sense of self-worth that is often lacking during this period in their lives.”
Sarah’s experience jibes with the research. Studies show that young women who play sports have a higher level of self-esteem and a lower incidence of depression. Female student-athletes exhibit more responsible social behavior than their non-athletic peers: they are less likely to smoke or use drugs and have lower rates of both sexual activity and pregnancy. Furthermore, playing sports keeps students engaged in school and thus can help to improve graduation rates. 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. Female athletes are also more likely to do well in science classes than their classmates who do not play sports.
|Benjamin Franklin girls’ basketball program now has 40 players; double what it was only two years ago.|
Sarah says the reward has been enormous, if hard to relate to anyone who doesn’t spend a significant time with adolescents: “I can still remember the day that a girl said to me after practice, ‘Hey Ms. Egan! Thanks for helping us out with basketball.’ It may seem like a basic statement, but ‘thank you’ is a phrase that is rarely uttered within the walls of a middle school.”
Sarah had to build up the girls’ basketball program pretty much with her bare hands. But when she did, the girls came. And they came in droves. The thank you’s may be few and far between, but Sarah says, “I don't coach to hear thank you. I don't coach to be congratulated. I don't coach simply for the wins (clearly). I coach to change the lives of girls. I coach to see them gain confidence and do things that they never thought were possible. I coach because I want to bring joy into their lives and teach them to love the game. I coach to help girls become confident, strong women.”
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