In High School Sports, Minority Girls Finish Last

Earlier this year, the National Women’s Law Center, in collaboration with the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, published a report about the gross disparity in athletic opportunities among high school students.

The report, Finishing Last: Girls of Color and School Sports Opportunities, presents research showing that minority students have fewer opportunities to play school sports than their white counterparts, and that female athletes have fewer opportunities than male athletes. Ultimately, female students of color have the fewest opportunities to play sports — and to receive the ensuing benefits of athletic participation — as compared to all other students.

Benefits of Athletic Participation

The report highlighted the general benefits typically derived from or associated with being a student-athlete, including lower tobacco and other drug use, lower rates of obesity and other general health concerns (e.g., heart disease and osteoporosis), and better social decision-making abilities, particularly with regard to sexually responsible behavior. For girls especially, a more positive body image and higher levels of self-esteem are strongly associated with participation in athletics; 43 percent of girls moderately involved in sports, and 54 percent of young women in high school highly involved in sports reported having high esteem, compared to 35 percent of female non-athletes.

In addition to outlining the physical and social benefits of being an athlete, the report also drew attention to academic opportunities that arise when students are involved in sports. Though minority students drop out of high school at a higher rate than white students, those who are student-athletes receive higher standardized test scores and more academic opportunities beyond high school. The financial impact of potential athletic scholarships — though the percentage of high school athletes who go on to compete in college is very small — is also an incentive for students to participate in athletics.

Persistent Opportunity Gaps for Female and Minority Athletes

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was introduced to provide comparable athletic opportunities for both girls and boys, partly based on the notion that the mere existence of athletic opportunities encourages more girls to participate in sports.

Despite the lofty ideals of Title IX, its realization has remained incomplete. The report cites staggering statistics revealing that athletic opportunities are far less common for girls, for minority students, and especially for female minority students — facts that raise the question of whether or not schools are actually operating in compliance with Title IX.

The study examined 13 states (Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas) that had at least 20 high schools that fell into one of two categories: first, those that had a student population of 90 percent or more white students, and second, those that had a student population of 90 percent or more minority students. It then looked at the athletic opportunities — defined as total available spots on athletic teams — for boys and girls within those mostly-white and mostly-minority schools. The numbers showed that on average, boys at predominantly white schools had the greatest numbers of opportunities to participate in athletics, with 62 spots per 100 students enrolled, followed by girls at predominantly white schools, with 51 spots per 100 student enrolled. Boys at minority schools filled 30 spots on sports teams per 100 students enrolled, while girls at minority schools filled 20 spots per 100 students enrolled.

The study defines an “opportunity gap” as the difference in number of athletic opportunities for boys and girls. Within the 13 states investigated in this study, 40 percent of minority high schools have substantial female opportunity gaps, compared to only 16 percent of predominantly white high schools. Eight of those 13 states have minority high schools with double the opportunity gap of their white counterparts. For example, in New York, 40.1 percent of predominantly minority high schools have substantial opportunity gaps between athletic options for boys and girls, compared to only 4.5 percent of mostly white high schools.

Changing the Trends

While the main focus of the report was on the statistics derived from high schools around the country, it also ventured beyond high school athletics, showing that non-white girls are far less likely to participate in athletics outside of their school programs. Local recreational and club sports teams have fewer minority participants than they do white participants. With many of the mostly minority schools located in urban areas where traffic, crime, and generally fewer athletic fields and facilities exist, students — girls in particular — are less likely to explore outdoor and athletic activities. The report invites school districts to to counteract these environmental hurdles by providing more athletic opportunities within their campuses and helping facilitate involvement in athletics, which has shown to have an overwhelmingly positive impact on participants.

The study offers additional suggestions to help counteract the trends in their findings. For example, it called on federal, state, and local governments to require more data collection from schools, especially with regard to the ethnic breakdown of their student populations as well as their student-athlete populations, with a particular focus on those 13 states identified in this study. The authors also recommend that school districts be provided with increased incentives for interdistrict integration in order to expand the opportunities for all students. States should work with schools to assess the barriers between minority girls and their involvement in athletics, and support initiatives to create more teams and roster spots. On more of a local level, the report’s authors recommend that municipalities and school districts collaborate to provide more and better athletic resources and promote more involvement in athletics.

What the Report Leaves Out

With the statistics confirming the report’s claim that athletic opportunities are far more sparse for minority students, for female students, and particularly for female minority students, the question is, “Why?”

The point the authors make with regard to the need for more athletic opportunities for girls and minorities is important, but from the point of view of a school system expected to create these opportunities, it becomes a bit more complicated.

Before there was ever a girls soccer team at Middlesex High School, where I coach, there was a girls field hockey team. That field hockey team eventually turned into the soccer team, but the limited number of students interested in athletics as a whole did not initially warrant the existence of two separate teams — though the report argues that more opportunities would ultimately be more beneficial for the students. What Title IX has demonstrated, according to the report, is that “If you build it, they will come.” That may be so, but school districts need to be pragmatic, and there are so many financial factors that go into creating and maintaining a team: coaching stipends, uniforms, equipment, transportation, playing fields, state and league dues, insurance, and officiating fees, to name a few.

One idea to support the expansion of athletic opportunities in schools, and for girls in particular, would be first to offer intramural options to gauge student interest. If there is interest in the intramural teams, schools — if they have the funding — may then be more likely to budget for interscholastic sports teams. At my school, for example, which has a student body of around 650 students, only 30–35 athletes join the soccer team each season, which means we can have a small varsity team and a small junior varsity team. Other girls soccer programs in the area have enough players for a freshman team, as well, and to have actual tryouts, whereas at my school, each player who tries out has a spot on the team because there isn’t any competition. In other words, the demand is barely there for the sports we do offer, let alone those we don’t.

Socioeconomic factors may also come into play when determining why certain student populations don’t participate in athletics at the same rate as other students. In Massachusetts, for example, one of the states included in the study, students in low-income districts are far less likely to participate in athletics than those who attend schools in high-income communities. An analysis of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s yearly survey of athletic participation by high school students reveals that “in the state’s 10 poorest communities, the data show sports participation is 43 percent below the statewide average. By contrast, sports participation in the 10 wealthiest communities is 32 percent above the average.” For example, just over 30 percent of students in Lawrence participate in an interscholastic sport, where 91.3 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In Wayland, where 6 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, student participation in sports is about 70 percentage points higher than the state average — bringing it close to almost 150 percent (the data conveys sports seasons completed, not the number of students who played sports).

In my district, students can be three-sport athletes and a member of as many clubs as they’d like, all covered under an annual participation fee of $125. In many districts, this fee is non-existent. The real cost of joining an athletic team, however, comes in the preparation.

In the world of soccer, the best high school teams tend to be made up of players who commit themselves to year-round participation in club soccer. They travel all across the state, region, and country to play in leagues and tournaments. They play with clubs that have well-maintained fields and indoor facilities, as well as top-notch trainers. All of this, of course, is not cheap. Parents can spend thousands of dollars a year to have their children involved in these clubs.

The financial cost is one thing, and but it gets compounded when you consider the need for flexible schedules to travel for games and tournaments, by both the athletes and their parents. Single parents who work multiple jobs to support their families rarely have the time or financial resources to commit to these clubs. Players who come from families with more means to pay for their involvement in these kinds of clubs will obviously have an upper hand in their pursuit of personal records and team placements. These clubs essentially operate in the private sector and are subject to economic supply and demand; as long as there are people willing to pay, the costs can rise, a fact that makes it even more difficult for low-income families to gain access.

What Reducing the Opportunity Gap Would Mean

A great deal of value can be derived from involvement in school sports — academically, socially, emotionally, and of course athletically. Access to opportunities will certainly benefit students, schools, and communities. To level the playing field (so to speak), we need more consistent compliance with Title IX as well as enforcement where compliance is lacking. We also need bigger and fairly-distributed budgets for school sports. And we need to ensure that income levels — for districts as well as families — do not affect students’ opportunities to participate fully in sports.

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