Do girls and women really need sports?

This is the eighth in a series entitled “Women’s Sports Without Illusions” that critically examines the nearly four decades of the women’s sports movement, including Title IX, cultural and social developments, the growth of professional and international women’s sports and current challenges and issues.

All posts in this series can be found here.


At about the time young girls in America were beginning to flock to playing fields and other athletic venues in unprecedented numbers, women’s sports leaders in the 1990s began cranking up some new rhetoric about the reasons they should be participating and competing.

This went beyond obtaining an athletic scholarship and a college education in the process, as Title IX was permitting them to do.

As the female experience in sports was poised to make astonishing breakthroughs later in that decade — the Atlanta Olympics, the creation of the WNBA and the Women’s World Cup — a new line in the sports feminist narrative was sounding a bit more stern, even grim: Participating in sports was imperative, for the sake of good health and a prosperous career, among other factors. Former University of Iowa women’s athletics director Christine Grant summed up this sentiment rather famously:

“Girls must play sports. It’s essential for successful people.”

Her sister-in-arms, Donna Lopiano, at the time presiding over the Women’s Sports Foundation, added more details of how girls and women would benefit from sports:

“Greater confidence levels, self-esteem, and a better self image. They are also less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy, less likely to take drugs and engage in other high-risk behavior, and more likely to stay in school. The health benefits are tremendous and include a lower risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis.”

It’s hard to dispute that a positive experience in sports can yield these and other benefits, beyond the pleasure of playing. I understood that even as a young girl in pre-Title IX America. Told how unusual it was for a girl to want to play ball as much as I did, I shrugged off such statements, defiant of even polite suggestion of conformity. I was (and remain) stubbornly independent off the field as well, but never in my life did I think the urge to get girls to get in the game would become even more conformist than what I fought against.

Playing for all the wrong reasons

The symbol of this almost desperate attempt to encourage girls to get involved in sports was a 1995 Nike commercial, If You Let Me Play Sports. An influential sports shoe company with a brilliant reputation for powerful marketing and imagery packed more into this 30-second spot than all the pronouncements of sports feminists could manage in 30 years:

This ad certainly felt like a triumphal moment for women’s sports leaders, a cultural watershed in reaching the American public about the values and virtues of sports for girls. Clucked a Nike copywriter:

“It wasn’t advertising. It was the truth.”

But was it?

I was initially chilled at seeing this ad when was first unveiled, and my feeling soon switched to horror.

First of all, the title of the ad.

Who was stopping girls from playing? Anywhere in America? In the mid-1990s? This has been part of the sports feminist mantra — that girls and women, even then, were somehow still being prevented from playing, even two full decades into the Title IX era. If not actually on the field, then in a larger cultural context. Except that this was patently untrue.

Secondly, there has been little response to having young girls spout the same talking points of activists, as if they have any idea what they’re really saying. The worst example was the somber girl, sitting on a swing and saying in a monotone that if only she could be allowed to play sports:

“I will be more likely to be leave a man who beats me.”

To have the words of adults come out of the mouths of children is reprehensible, this line above all. There’s an implication here that females must be implored to get into sports, to “become strong,” if for nothing else than to deal with abusive men. Mariah Burton Nelson must have been beaming.

Rarely has the veracity of these statements in this ad, and in the entire “girls must play sports” meme been questioned. What are the sources for these claims? We are never told. This all sounds so right, so they must be true.

It’s OK not to play — really, it is

Yet a flood of books, research and other claims were forthcoming in the wake of the Nike ad, and as social scientists, academics and the larger feminist community issued warning signs about how girls were being “shortchanged” in American society.

A 1998 book, “Raising Our Athletic Daughters: How Sports Can Build Self-Esteem and Save Girls’ Lives,” plays off these claims, which were expertly demolished by dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers.

Now girls needed to be “saved” through sports. But what if they stop playing? This is a terrifying prospect for the well-meaning co-authors, Jean Zimmerman and Gil Reavill, so they devoted a chapter to it. “When Sports Fails Girls” leads where the title suggests. There are lengthy discussions of eating disorders and body image, and of sexual abuse by and relationships with coaches.

Zimmerman and Reavill mention only in passing that girls may become interested in other activities, and even “in boys.” Apparently, “some people” believe this, but they don’t bother to explore that possibility. It is a glaring omission.

Today, as a third generation of young girls and women participate in sports, there is more research being conducted into the topic, and that is being widely hailed in the mainstream media. So is the Nike ad, still uncritically. Chirped The Wall Street Journal:

“A 10 percentage-point rise in girls’ participation in high school sports leads to a 1 percentage point increase in female college attendance and a 1 to 2 percentage point increase in female labor-force participation.

“Maybe athletics should be added to reading, writing and arithmetic.”

Yet women are more than 50 percent of college students today, and are becoming more in demand in a labor force that increasingly favors knowledge- and information-based collaborative skills. Whether or not they played sports does not appear to be a factor. They’re changing the cultures of education and work, indeed, they may be actually shaping it, by the sheer dominance of their numbers. This is hardly being shortchanged.

While these developments are good news, there are other basic questions unanswered. Why, when women are diving deeply into all kinds of academic, athletic and extracurricular activities, is such a disproportionate amount of attention being focused on those who play sports? Stevenson’s research doesn’t address those girls and women who don’t play sports and who aren’t interested in it at all, but are having succesful, happy and healthy lives. What about them? What about those of us who did play, once upon a time, and did drop out, and are just fine?

Yes, Title IX and the women’s sports movement opened the doors of sports to girls and women who might not otherwise have been able to play. But to continue to insist that this must be a top priority, a higher-value choice among many that females now have available because of health, fitness, academic and professional reasons, is to disrespect the fact that not all women will make the same choices. There’s a certain comformity in this notion that I find detestable, given the rebellious roots of my sports experience.

And finally — and I will write about this in more depth in my final post on Friday — all these feel-good stories and studies are missing any examination why those of us who love sports were drawn to it in the first place:

If not for the joy of sports, then for what? What’s the point?

Coming Thursday: As the Title IX establishment celebrates the 39th anniversary of the passage of the law, some envision how the “revolution” might continue. Their ideas subvert the original intent and spirit of that statute and do little to broaden the mainstream appeal of women’s sports. Warning: I may get a little angry about all this.

Women’s Sports Without Illusions: The Series.

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  1. Matt Zemek
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t expect to be so saddened and discouraged by this (excellent) post, but I am.

    What emerges for me in this particular essay is a cruel triple-irony: First, the centrality of sports in American culture has left sports and sports marketing so profoundly vulnerable to commercial manipulation as seen in the Nike ad. The selling of sports to young women (and their parents) is something that comes so naturally. YET, while sports are so easy to market at the high school/youth levels, professional sports leagues like the WNBA do not enjoy the cultural heft/weight/stature that they are seeking.

    The second irony is that while marketing entities/outlets have been so easily able to propagate the “sports are necessary for girls’ development” angle, news outlets – which should be fact-checking and soberly evaluating these kinds of claims – seem more inclined to want to shield and shepherd this mantra/belief system. Media outlets are such profit-centric organisms today (unlike the 1960s and earlier) that they are much less inclined to critically examine the factuality of various claims if said claims benefit various advertising/revenue-generating efforts. How (and when, and why) editors and publishers choose to cover certain stories remains one of the central challenges of daily journalism. It’s not so much the reporter (though the reporter certainly bears some share of the blame) as it is the (executive) editor signing off on stories that are either one-sided or nakedly thin and superficial. Market imperatives seem to be driving coverage (this is why, for instance, media outlets continue to descend on Ohio State when the bulk of that story has run its course, whereas the North Carolina and Oregon stories – which don’t sell as well – aren’t receiving the same weight/constancy of coverage). There is such a pronounced “choose the angle/tenor/focus” dynamic at work here with respect to the editorial decisions being made in newsrooms about how to cover women’s/girls sports. Journalism is supposed to counteract marketing, but it so often winds up amplifying it these days.

    Third, the notion of choice for and among women holds an ironic place in all this. In matters of sexual activity and expression, choice is so paramount. (This is not meant to be a discussion of THAT ISSUE. I make the reference only because the notion of choice itself is so prominent among many feminists, and is seen as the ground from which so many other feminist efforts – and virtues, I might add – have emerged over time.) This essay and other installments of this series (convincingly) portray a Title IX establishment that remains insistent on one way of proceeding even as a 2011 world poses problems that 1972 legislation is no longer suited to address.

    Referring to Monday’s post about Title IX, for instance, why shouldn’t a female athlete be able to CHOOSE to attend Penn State if she wants to play in a participation sport that’s part of the school’s 29 athletic programs? Similarly, why shouldn’t a female athlete be able to CHOOSE to attend Texas if she wants to be in one of the more established and resourced sports among the 16 that UT selectively CHOOSES to promote? Quota-based, sports-participation-oriented compliance requirements at the collegiate level are removing choice from the equation in women’s sports, with the whole of collegiate athletics being adversely affected as a result.

    All this, because an entrenched alliance of political power players – helped along by easy marketing opportunities and uncritical journalism – have been able to establish and maintain such a complete stranglehold on Washington, D.C., and the court system in this country at the Federal level.

    Sad and depressing.


  2. Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Gosh, Mark, I wasn’t trying to sadden anyone. The media coverage of women’s sports is something I wanted to work into this series in a more substantial way than it’s turning out (more on that tomorrow), which is ironic given my background.

    As for choice, I am pro-choice in so many ways. What’s been revealing to me as I’ve worked on this series is how assertive some leaders have been in presuming that their choices should the ones that other women aspire to. This has been an issue in the larger feminist movement, and it has seeped into sports. They remain oblivious to this, which even for them I find particularly striking.

  3. Posted August 3, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. is really good. Thank you However I am experiencing issue with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss problem? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx