What College Athletics Taught Me Beyond a Hollywood Ending
When I was 8 years old and Title IX was 24, I told my parents that I wanted to play softball in college. From that point on, I was unshakeable in my pursuit. I played on school teams, little league teams, all-star teams, and travel teams. I went to camps, clinics, practiced in my garage, and soaked up the great sports movies of my childhood—Sandlot, Rudy, the Mighty Ducks—all the ones where the heroes win in the end, as heroes should. I couldn’t get enough of it.
It doesn’t surprise me to hear that high school athletes are far less likely to participate in drugs or sexually risky behavior and that they typically have higher grades. My drive to succeed and become better was simply more intriguing than any high school scandal and I had coaches who insisted on high academic standards. I worked hard and was lucky enough that my dream came true: I was recruited all over the country to play the sport I loved.
On my first day of NCAA practice, my coach called us over to give what I assumed would be a welcome speech. He said, “You need to recognize that everyone in this league is at least as good as you. Many are better. So we need to work hard enough to overcome that.”
And work hard we did. My coach put us on a practice regimen that I think he stole from the training montage in the movie, Miracle. After practice, it was easy to find my teammates and me in the dining hall—we were covered in icepacks and surrounded by food. College athletics was more demanding than anything I had experienced.
We had an incredible season that year, as my movies had convinced me we would. We were a come- from-behind “Cinderella story” that brought all 17 girls together and made our gruff but endearing coach proud. We swept the championship series and went on to the NCAA tournament, winning more postseason games than our school had ever won before.
But unlike the movies that resolve in high triumph and then the credits roll, life moves on. I had three more years of college athletics left to play, and during them I learned that victory is not a permanent state of being. The next three years would be harder than the first in a variety of ways, both emotionally and physically. Still, I kept at it. I loved the game and I needed to be a part of it for as long as I could.
My last season was my best – I broke a few records – but more importantly, the four years of my college career taught me two incredibly important lessons.
First, I learned how to do quality work even when utterly exhausted, a skill that carried me through graduate school. Second, I came to realize that if victory isn’t final, neither is defeat.
This rejection of fatalism is directly applicable to women’s rights. Our work isn’t one big sports movie, it’s a lot of smaller games. Our defeats are temporary setbacks and our successes must be protected.
We need look no further than Title IX itself for an example. When it was passed in 1972, 3.67 million boys put on the uniforms of their high school teams, but only 295,000 girls felt that honor. By the 2010-2011 school year, that disparity had reduced dramatically: 3.2 million girls and 4.5 million boys represented their high schools in athletic competition.
But the fight for equal opportunity in athletics isn’t over. One method to test a school’s Title IX compliance is to calculate the participation gap that compares the percentage of girls in school with the percentage of girls in that school’s athletic programs. Ideally there should be no little to no gap, and a 10% gap, for example, is definitely cause for concern.
Yet right here in Washington D.C., where the Educational Amendments of 1972 were passed and signed, 57.1% of high schools reported a participation gap of 10% or higher for the 2009-2010 school year. The most egregious percentage that year came from Georgia: 71.6% of schools had a participation gap above the 10% threshold. The majority of D.C. and Georgian girls may not be getting to exercise their rights to participate equally in high school athletics.
While we celebrate women in sports and remember the important victory of Title IX, we are not yet at the end of the story. Obstacles remain on the path to gender equity in athletics.
We need to work hard enough to overcome them.
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