On Saturday, our nation will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX. This single law of 37 words has revolutionized sports opportunities for women and girls, bringing the number of girls playing high school sports from 290,000 in 1971 to 3.2 million today.
Thanks to Title IX, these girls have access to all the social, developmental, and physical benefits that come with competitive athletics. And, sports participation has been linked to higher graduation rates, lower rates of smoking and teen pregnancy, better body image, and even higher future wages.
Gone are the days I remember when girls were only permitted to play half-court basketball or dribble the ball no more than three times. Today's girls are respected as athletes and challenged to push themselves to the limits, and it is thanks to Title IX.
So with all the obvious benefits of sports, one has to wonder why more girls of color are not on the playing field.
The Women's Sports Foundation reports that less than two-thirds of African-American and Latina girls play sports, compared with three quarters of Caucasian girls. According to the NCAA, Latinas make up just 4 percent of female college athletes.
African-American women are 11 percent of female college athletes, but less than 5 percent for most sports other than track and basketball.
These lower participation levels are reflected in their health statistics as well. Only 25 percent of Latinas and 22 percent of African-American girls in high school meet recommended levels of physical activity, compared with 31 percent of Caucasian girls and 46 percent of boys.
Girls of color often face cultural barriers, such as stereotypes around personal appearance and body shape, or worries about how to play in clothing required by their religion. What we've also found through serving Latinas, for example, is that they often are expected to take care of younger children after school, cook, or even work part time to support the family. Many immigrant families also come from countries where youth sports are rare, especially for girls.
Another reality affecting girls of color is that athletics is expensive. Uniforms and equipment are just the beginning. Then you add registration fees, tournament fees, summer camps, and off-season play into the equation. By the time they reach high school, many girls have spent years playing, at annual costs of thousands of dollars, an option out of reach of low-income families.
But it does not have to be that way. Andrea Delgado, 17, is a young Latina who grew up in Carpinteria, Calif. Like many Latinas in her community, she did not have the opportunity to play sports. The school district did not offer athletics until high school and club sports were too expensive for her family.
At Girls Inc. she -- and other Latinas -- got the chance to play basketball and volleyball at no cost, which she says made her physically stronger while motivating her to set goals. They also prepared her mentally for competitive play. Upon entering high school, she continued her sports participation by joining the swim and water polo team and taking advantage of the doors Title IX has opened. Today, she is a rising high school senior; her college plans include both studying pre-medicine and playing sports at the intramural level.
Community-based organizations that already serve girls like Andrea have remarkable promise to bring excellent sports opportunities at a price tag that isn't prohibitive.
These programs can provide access to sports like basketball, gymnastics, and soccer to more nontraditional offerings like kayaking, rowing, or rock climbing. They can also spark a life-long love of sports and physical fitness. By introducing girls of color early on to athletics in a positive environment, they can put many more girls like Andrea on the track to be prepared for and seek out opportunities on the high school and college level.
As we celebrate this banner day, we must remain true to the spirit of this life-changing law for so many, and do our part as a nation to ensure all girls have access to the opportunities they want and need.
Title IX is an incredible public policy success story, and has had a profound effect on our lives and our nation. It is up to us to honor its legacy by extending its promise to every girl with talent and the desire to play.
Writer Judy Vredenburgh is president and chief executive of Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization in Manhattan with a network of local organizations in the United States and Canada.