Tina Sloan Green

(WOMENSENEWS)–Tina Sloan Green, co-founder and president of the Philadelphia-based Black Women in Sport Foundation, says urban girls need more Ruth Paynes. She is the 64-year-old girls’ sports advocate and coach who has been instrumental in establishing the first season of competitive double-dutch in New York City public high schools.

“Title IX is great but in order to bring about change it takes activism on the parts of parents and people who understand legislation,” said Sloan Green, who introduces city girls to nontraditional sports like lacrosse, golf, tennis and fencing. “First, parents have to know how sports can benefit their daughters.”

Kym Spruell, 33, is one parent who has recently caught on.

“Honestly, until now, I never thought sports was important to her education,” Spruell said recently about the impact of team sport on her 9-year-old daughter, Kayla. She’s the shyer of her two daughters and the youngest to join Payne’s squad this year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood shared by long-time working-class residents and the newer arrivals buying fixer-upper brownstones and modern condos.

“She’s becoming more outspoken and I notice her being more open in a group setting,” Spruell said. “I thought, ‘Wow, Kayla’s really coming into her own.'”

Studies have consistently shown that on average, kids who play sports tend to perform better in school than kids who don’t. “Girls who play sports tend not to get involved in drugs or other risky behaviors,” said Lurline Jones, 64, a retired high school basketball coach recently honored by the city of Philadelphia and who sent nearly 300 of her female athletes to college on scholarship. “They learn cooperation and discipline, which helps you in life.”

But the message that competitive sports produce successful career women, Sloan Green said, has often been poorly communicated, if at all, to urban parents.

Double Whammy

Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel of the National Women’s Law Center, based in Washington, D.C., says that urban girls of color are also “hit with a double whammy.” Their families or communities typically don’t have resources or access to open spaces and they also face unfair competition for scarce resources at school.

“In some ways, the lack of opportunities for girls is even more pronounced at the high school level,” Chaudhry said.

High school female athletes outnumber their college counterparts 16-to-1, but according to the National Women’s Law Center’s 2007 review of four years of complaints filed with the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, teen athletes complained of unequal treatment at far lower rates.

The law center did not analyze the number of complaints coming specifically from urban areas. But most of the relatively low number of high school filings involved open-space sports such as girls’ softball and boys’ baseball, suggesting few urban female athletes had used Title IX to demand equal treatment.

High School Breakdown

Unlike colleges and universities, high schools aren’t required by law to publicly report gender breakdowns by sport, resources and funding.

“We’re seeing lots of problems at the high school level but there’s no way for parents to get a handle on what’s happening,” Chaudhry said.

Advocates are pushing for similar legislation aiming at the high school level. The National Women’s Law Center, for example, is supporting the High School Athletics Accountability Act and the High School Sports Information Collection Act, which Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe reintroduced to the Senate this February.

Both bills would require public schools to report the gender of student-athletes and the financing of girls’ and boys’ athletics teams. Releasing this data, according to New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who originally introduced the accountability act in 2004, would not only increase Title IX compliance, but increase opportunities for both girls and boys to participate in athletics.

Meanwhile, back in the gym, Payne is showing Kayla how to jump into the rope the proper way, from either side, landing on the foot closer to the turner nearer to her. Unlike street jumping, in competitive double dutch two- or three-member teams follow national league rules and win points through precision footwork, speed, acrobatics and creativity.

Many coaches consider Kayla, at 9 years old, a late beginner in sports and recommend starting kids in the second or third grades.

Late Starts Lead to Dropping Out

Don Sabo is research director at the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation and lead author of an October study that found urban girls have some of the lowest rates of sports participation of U.S. adolescents. Sabo says that the later girls start sports–as is the tendency with urban girls–the more quickly they are apt to drop out.

“They haven’t learned the fundamentals of how to balance, jump, run, how to be a team member, how to suck it up and play through being tired. They feel foolish,” said Sabo, a sociologist who played NCAA Division I football in college. “When was the last time you tried something you weren’t good at and stayed with it for a year?”

“You can’t put a sign on a wall and expect a girl to walk into a gym,” said Jones who, when she was athletic director of University City High, would pitch sports specifically to freshman girls. “You have a great many students who’ve never been introduced to the world of sports or the world of play.”

By the 11th and 12th grades, 84 percent of urban girls reported no physical education classes during the previous week, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation study.

When faced with the argument that urban girls just aren’t that interested in sports, Sabo has a ready retort. “Very few people dreamed about going around the world either,” he said. “Dreams, aspirations and interests are influenced by the kinds of opportunities and perceived realities that inhabit their world. If there were more programs out there, girls would play.”

Carla Murphy is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn and a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She graduates in December 2009.
This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.

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For more information:

Women’s Sports Foundation, “Go Out and Play” report

Black Women in Sport Foundation

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