Girls playing basketball

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–If former bodybuilder and now Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger lends his signature, California could soon become the first state to require that girls enjoy equal opportunities in after school athletics programs.

A bill prohibiting gender discrimination in youth athletics programs run by cities and counties passed the state legislature in late August and Schwarzenegger has until September 30 to sign it. He has not taken a position on the bill, his spokesperson said.

Advocates for youth sports and fitness programs say that most local parks departments don’t provide girls nearly as many activities as boys, and that boys are more likely to get better equipment and playing fields.

Mary Wiberg

“I’m not sure anyone would say it’s deliberate discrimination,” said Mary Wiberg, executive director for the California Commission on the Status of Women. “But we think the bill will give cities and counties an opportunity to be more aware of this issue.”

Title IX, on the books since 1972, prohibits discrimination in all educational and other activities that receive federal funding. Title IX created a boon for sports participation among girls and young women. State, county and city programs, however, have no such equity requirement. Advocates of the bill say it will help thousands of mostly low-income girls who participate in inexpensive or free municipal parks and recreation activities in California. In Los Angeles alone, 24,000 girls play sports through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. If the bill becomes law, other states will likely be watching to see how the law affects municipalities. Nationwide, for instance, more than 1.2 million girls play on 83,000 community slow-pitch softball teams.

Urban Girls Left Out

“There’s a lot of movement in schools because of Title IX and lots of movement in the suburbs because of private programs but what’s left is girls in urban areas who rely on the parks departments for sports,” said Rachel Baker, deputy director and co-founder of Team-Up for Youth, a San Francisco Bay Area grant-making organization for youth sports programs.

A 1995 study conducted by Baker found that only 25 percent of low-income girls in Oakland and San Francisco participate in after school sports programs. “It’s not just the facilities, it’s the programs,” Baker said. While most urban parks departments offer basketball and baseball, Baker said activities that might have greater appeal to girls such as dance and swimming are harder to come by.

For instance, boys’ community baseball teams are more likely to get the better playing fields than girls’ softball teams, as well as better practice hours, Wiberg said.

That would change under the law. California parks and recreation departments would have to offer girls opportunity for participation in youth athletics programs in both “quality and scope,” according to the bill. “You have to show you’re making an effort,” Baker said. “Right now it’s easy to say girls don’t want to play because they don’t sign up for co-ed teams.”

From Supplies to Schedules to Safety

To determine whether there is discrimination, courts could consider everything from allocation of funds, supplies and equipment, game and practice schedules and locations, coaching, land use, locker rooms, publicity efforts and the qualifications of an umpire or referee, according to the bill.

Safety will also be a benchmark. Often times girls would like to play on a local team, but parents won’t let them because they don’t think the facilities are safe, Baker said.

Legislators who opposed the bill said it amounts to the state meddling in local affairs and that it is a mandate that cities and counties cannot afford at a time of fiscal crisis. The state Department of Parks and Recreation has taken a neutral position on the bill.

Assemblymember Darrell Steinberg, the Sacramento Democrat who sponsored the bill, said cities or counties don’t have to spend more money; they just have to give equal access.

“Once cities and counties provide equal access, over time more people will want to participate and more programs can develop,” Steinberg said. “This is another step forward for more equity in sports and recreation.”

The idea for the legislation stemmed from the ACLU, which filed lawsuits against three cities in Southern California, including Los Angeles, beginning in 1998. The suits alleged that girls’ softball teams played in unsafe, inadequate conditions with no lighting for night games, no scoreboard and no bullpen. The lawsuits were settled on the condition that the cities make improvements in their facilities for girls’ teams and the departments are audited each year by the California Women’s Law Center in Los Angeles.

Raise the Bar

A result of its lawsuit, the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department started a program in 1999 called Raise the Bar. The landmark program not only involves more girls in sports and recreation but also has increased the number of female coaches and female representation on the city and regional Sports Board.

A starting point can be as simple as a banner. Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks put up large banners outside all their facilities that read “Girls play here,” which helped increase enrollment and inquiries from girls and their families, Baker said. Since the program began, participation among girls in Los Angeles has increased from 11,000 girls in 1999 to 24,000 today. Boys’ participation has remained steady at about 50,000 boys annually. The city has sought private and public grant-making opportunities to fund new programs for girls–including uniforms, trophies and team photos–while not sacrificing boys’ programs.

Officials in Oakland and San Francisco are in talks to improve gender equity in parks and recreation athletics programs regardless of whether Schwarzenegger signs the bill. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom appeared at a rally in July to show his support for the idea, including starting new sports teams for girls, recruiting more female coaches and doing outreach to girls in their schools and communities to increase participation levels.

“Sports disproportionately benefit young boys,” Newsom said. “So we can do so much more; we can do so much better; and I just want to commit myself to all of you to do just that.”

Among advocates of the bill, hopes are high that the nation’s most famous athletic governor will sign it.

“The governor has been a major proponent of participation in athletics,” Steinberg said. “I’m very hopeful he will support this.”

Rebecca Vesely is a health writer at the Oakland Tribune.

For more information:

Calfornia Women’s Commission:

Team-Up for Youth: