“But women can be strong athletes too,” commented one of the 7th graders. “Yes,” added another student, “look at [her]. She’s a 7th grader and she’s on varsity basketball.” Everyone turned to look at the girl, one of the youngest and smallest students in the school and a strong and skilled athlete. She smiled her pride as several students congratulated her, sharing vicariously in this achievement by one of their own.

We had just finished viewing a video “Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete” and the girls were justifiably outraged at the portrayals of female athletes in magazines and on TV (and this despite my having to censor about 10-15 seconds’ worth of images as too graphic for this age group). Female athletes are far more likely than males to be shown out of uniform, often wearing bikinis or posed with their husbands, boyfriends or children. The message conveyed is, yes, she’s an athlete, but don’t worry, she’s still “feminine.” Even when women are portrayed in action, the nature of the uniforms (compare female and male beach volleyball uniforms, or figure skating outfits…) often focuses attention as much on how the athlete looks as how well she performs in her sport.

Meanwhile, 37 years after the passage of Title IX, Carol Tracy, the executive director of the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia, has commented that “the vast majority of schools are out of compliance with” the law (Thomas). Katie Thomas, in her “New York Times” article “Advocating for Girls’ Sports with a Sharp Tongue,” describes the one-person crusade of Robert H. Landau to identify and confront, generally through lawsuits, examples of non-compliance. He has filed at least 30 complaints, often achieving his desired results, though at the expense of good relations with the athletic director, coach or other person involved. The seventh graders voiced mixed feelings about his crusade, commenting that while they believed it was completely wrong for schools not to comply with Title IX and that someone did need to focus attention on this inequity, that Mr. Landau’s methods were too confrontational and he needed to tone down his response. I mentioned this to one of my colleagues, who observed, “Of course. They have no idea what it was like before Title IX.”

I do have an idea, as I was exactly their age when Title IX was passed. I remember all too well the controversy when one of the girls in 8th grade asked to swim on the boys’ team as there was no girls’ team at the time. Some people felt she should have the same opportunity as boys, other fretted about what would happen if she beat any of the boys. In fact, the school did decide to allow her to swim, perhaps because of the newly-passed Title IX, and she did set new school records in her event. As a 12-year-old, I quietly took this all in, wondering why the mere possibility that a girl might beat a boy was considered by some people to be such an awful thing that they felt she shouldn’t even have the chance to try.

Mary Jo Kane, a professor at the University of Minnesota, commented at the end of the video, “All I’m asking is, turn the camera on and let us see what it looks like when women participate in sports. And what we’ll see is that they are terrific athletes who are enormously gifted and enormously committed to something that many people in this country love, and that’s sport.” (“Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete”) At Stoneleigh-Burnham, of course, that’s exactly what we see. Female athletes are the norm and are celebrated for their accomplishments – their strength, their grace, their power, their precision of movement, their sheer talent.

Beyond these benefits, research tells us that students who participate in sports tend not only to be in better shape and lead healthier lives but also to see improvement in other non-physical areas of their lives, from academic to social development. Girls who participate in sports tend to have higher self-esteem, perhaps one reason why girls who participate in sports are also statistically less likely to become pregnant. (“25 Benefits of Girls Playing Sports”) The middle school girls are at a stage where they have an acute awareness of what they see around them, what is fair and unfair, and how the world could be a better place. With positive role models not only among older girls but within their own ranks, they have every chance to grow up viewing strong, athletic women as the norm, believing these athletes should receive their fair share of attention, and demanding these athletes be celebrated not for their looks or the other people in their lives but rather for their skills and talents.

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Works Cited

Playing Unfair: The Media Image of the Female Athlete. Challenging Media, 4 Oct. 2006. YouTube.com. Web. 3 Dec. 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luadmO7Cugc>.

Thomas, Katie. “Advocating for Girls’ Sports With a Sharp Tongue.” The New York Times. NY.  The New York Times, 29 Nov. 2009. Web. 3 Dec. 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/sports/30advocate.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3>.

“25 Benefits of Girls Playing Sports.” 25 Benefits of Girls Playing Sports – Women’s Sports Foundation. Women’s Sports Foundation, 2008. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/Content/Articles/Sports%20And%20Fitness/123/25%20Benefits%20of%20Girls%20Playing%20Sports.aspx>.

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