Title IX is felt in little leagues, soccer fields across the country

by Kathleen McDermott | 10/23/02 5:00am

This past spring, the soccer fields of Anoka, Minn. -- a suburb just north of Minneapolis -- were heavily sprinkled with blond ponytails.

That's because of the Anoka Junior Soccer Association's 24 teams, two-thirds are all female.

The organization's president, Nancy Giancola, herself the soccer mom of a fifth-grade girl, said she has witnessed a rapid expansion in the opportunities for girls to play youth sports in the past several years and since she was a young girl."When I was my daughter's age, we didn't have girls' sports at all," Giancola explained.

Giancola grew up in the pre-Title IX era, during which only one in 27 girls played high school sports, and a second-grade girl playing in a youth soccer league was the exception to the rule.

But growing up 30 years after the passage of the watershed legislation, her daughter has witnessed such female athletic triumphs as the U.S. Women's soccer team securing the World Cup in 1999.

Nationwide, nearly half of all youth soccer players last year were girls. And this trend is not limited to soccer: across the board, girls are participating in youth sports at far greater rates than they were a generation ago.

One effect of Title IX was to put women's athletics on the agenda. The reservation of spots on teams for women led to the proliferation of girls' basketball, soccer, swimming, softball and other sports on a local level. Not only that, but the popular culture of the Title IX generation has seen an increasing acceptance of female athleticism.

A 2001 report by the National Council of Youth Sports surveyed 61 youth sports organizations comprised of over 38 million young athletes. It found that girls represent 37 percent of all participants in youth athletics.

Even in traditionally male sports, girls are showing higher rates of participation.

The Youth Basketball of America League, for example, has seen a strong growth in female participation during its 14 years of existence, such that now about 35 percent of the organization's participants are girls.

Vice president of the organization Rick Ruedlinger attributes this rise in female participation to greater opportunities at the high school and college levels, due to both Title IX as well as greater publicity for professional women's basketball.

Once youth leagues for girls were offered, girls began to play, he said.

Participation in baseball is also moving more towards gender parity.This, according to the Little League's director of media relations Lance VanAuken, is because of a growing number of college scholarships for female ball players as well shifting cultural attitudes toward female athletes."Parents in the last ten to fifteen years are much more comfortable having their girls play team sports," he explained.

Nonetheless, many barriers continue to exist for young women athletes.

Many youth team sports remain largely male dominated. Among the USA Hockey league's 519,533 players for the 2000-2001 season, for example, only 42,165 were females, according to usahockey.com. In explaining this disparity, many point to cultural attitudes that still view female athletes with a degree of ambivalence.

Take the example Jennifer Wiehn '01, a varsity ice hockey player and columnist for the Sports Weekly during her time at Dartmouth. In Oct. 1999 she recounted how, upon telling the friend of her cousin that she played hockey, she was greeted with a response of, "Really? So are you a lesbian?"

A 1993 study comparing television coverage of women's and men's sports found that commentators trivialized the accomplishments of female athletes, referring to a woman basketball player's jump hook as "her little jump hook," for example.

The study -- entitled "Separating Men from the Girls: The Gendered Language of Televised Sports" and conducted by a group of sociologists including Michael Messner, a University of Southern California sociologist who specializes in issues of gender and sport -- said that newspaper media coverage of sports reflects this gender bias as well.

In the early 1980s, Messner writes, "only 4.4 percent of total column inches were devoted to coverage of women's sports." Even in "Sports Illustrated for Kids," male athletes were represented over female athletes by a 2:1 ratio in 1990, Messner wrote.

Messner's research did find, however, that sports commentators today, while ambivalent in their attitudes toward women athletes, were still much less likely to overtly trivialize and sexualize female athletes, in comparison with their predecessors.The outstanding female athlete is still portrayed as the exception, according to Messner.

A typical compliment, for example -- "she plays like a man" -- reflects the continuing cultural contradictions between femininity and athleticism, Messner explains. The athlete is being complimented, yet at the same time the implication is that in being such a strong athlete she is somehow not a "real" woman.

The recent growth in women's professional sports -- such as the 1997 founding of the Women's Basketball Association (WNBA) -- has helped give women's sports a higher profile.

But these leagues have also encountered problems of their own. They still struggle for acceptance and greater public support. Prior to the WNBA, for example, three separate professional basketball leagues for women had been formed and quickly folded, Mariah Burton, a commentator on American sports, writes.

While nationwide surveys now find that parents and children agree with statements such as "sports are no longer for boys only" -- a shift from 30 years ago -- women still have yet to achieve equal support for their participation in sports, according to Messner.

Wiehn -- only days after defending the notion that a woman could be both a varsity hockey player and a heterosexual --in her sports column described her surprise upon finding a group of 20 fraternity brothers eagerly crowded around their television watching, of all things, women's sports.

"These girls are hot," one said, explaining their interest, as all eyes remained glued to the screen, Wiehn recounted.