Empowering Girls through Sports
In 1972, fewer than 300,000 girls played high school sports. By 1978 — just six years later — that number had grown to two million. And today, more than 3.4 million girls participate in interscholastic athletics across the country — a 1,000% increase.
What triggered this exponential growth in girls’ sports? By all accounts, it was the passage of Title IX, the landmark legislation that forever changed the landscape of interscholastic athletics. This school year we here at the NJSIAA will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, and reflecting on the profound impact it has had on sports in general, and girls’ sports in particular.
Michele Smith, a softball star at Voorhees High School in Glen Gardner, who went on to lead the U.S. Olympic softball team to gold medals in 1996 and 2000 and has been the lead college softball analyst at ESPN for more than 20 years, offered these comments at her recent induction into the NFHS National High School Hall of Fame:
“Title IX was life-changing for many women, especially team sports. When President Nixon signed that bill into law in 1972, it truly impacted the ability, especially in high school sports, for girls to have funding to be able to play team sports. In golf and tennis and other sports that were more individualized, there was always a way for girls to be able to compete, but to be able to bring together a group of girls – a basketball team of 10, a field hockey team of 20, a softball team of 20-25 – and be able to fund it and have those opportunities for girls to play organized team sports, it was a game-changer for everybody.
“That’s one of the reasons why the ’96 Olympics was such a big deal for all the team sports that won gold medals because it’s that generation – my generation – of the youth through the ‘80s and early ‘90s that had the opportunity to play teams sports at the high school level and then go on and be elite athletes. Without Title IX, the world of sports for women looks completely different.”
I consider myself a beneficiary of Title IX. By the time I entered South Hunterdon High School, in Lambertville, in 1989, even that small Group I school was able to offer a variety of individual and team sports for girls. I played field hockey and basketball, and because of those opportunities was fortunate to earn a basketball scholarship and attend George Washington University. At GWU, I played on teams that were ranked nationally and competed well into the NCAA tournament each year. The values of hard work and discipline I learned on the court translated to the classroom, where I was awarded the Distinguished Scholar award from the GWU Business School and eventually started my career at a Big 5 accounting firm. The lessons in leadership and teamwork helped train me for my current role as the first woman to serve as Executive Director of the NJSIAA.
But I am also the mother of three daughters – ages 16, 14 and 11. While watching them play their sports I often reflect on my own experiences and I realize I did not appreciate how valuable these experiences were at the time. I now realize, and value, how important the lessons I learned while playing sports were in shaping the person I am today. It may sound familiar but it’s true: sports teaches us life lessons, like the value of teamwork, how to handle winning and losing, how to deal with adversity, and the importance of treating your opponent with respect.
And as a former athlete, a mother, and a woman in a leadership role, I think the benefits of playing sports go even further with our female athletes. Playing sports increases girls’ self-confidence and self-image, empowers them to be leaders and role models to younger players, instills in them the importance of physical activity for their social and emotional health, and demonstrates the importance of self-discipline and hard work for achieving your goals. Organization and time management — essential skills for any leader — are taught through sports.
I know that I would never be in this position without the efforts of the Title IX trailblazers who came before me. Trailblazers such as former, and current, NJSIAA directors Florence Peragallo, Carol Parsons and Kim DeGraw-Cole, who broke down barriers starting in the 1970s. It is my hope that my position will someday open up even more possibilities for my daughters. In the meantime, I am confident that by taking advantage of the myriad of opportunities opened to them by Title IX, they are gaining the skills necessary to become independent, confident and strong leaders in their own way.