Who has two thumbs and loves sports? This girl right here. There are very few sports that I don’t enjoy watching or haven’t dreamed of playing. I’ve played1 softball and basketball competitively. I was recruited for—though I didn’t end up joining—the cross-country team in high school. I definitely got down with some Ultimate Frisbee in college. I rock two little scars on my chin; one of them I received while getting body checked into a car playing street hockey with the neighbors. I cannot tell you how many times I have been tempted to try out for the Women’s Independent Football League. Chronic illness be damned!
1A quick disclaimer before moving on: I played those sports. I didn’t say I played them well. If they awarded trophies for klutziness, I’d have all the trophies. All of them.
Anyway, the thing is, sports are pretty awesome, and female athletes are super rad, and February 1st is a day for celebrating those very things. Today marks the thirty-first annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day. First celebrated in 1987, National Girls & Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) began as both a day to recognize women in sports and as a day to memorialize Flo Hyman, a remarkable Olympic volleyball player and proponent of equity in women’s sports who died the year prior.
In the years since the Women’s Sports Foundation—founded by none other than Billie Jean King, herself—held that inaugural gathering in Washington, D.C. to celebrate achievements by women in sports and to advocate for equity for female athletes, NGWSD has grown to include events at schools, universities, and community facilities across the nation. This year’s theme is “Expanding Opportunity.” It recognizes the progress made since the passage of Title IX and the ongoing work to make sports accessible to women and girls. It is a particularly fitting theme, as this year marks the 45th anniversary of Title IX’s being signed into law.
Billie Jean King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Title IX is a provision in the United States Education Amendments of 1972 that states rather simply: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The law itself is simple: if your school or activity received Federal funding, you have to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, has equitable access and support. However, it’s difficult to effectively implement and enforce, mostly because a lot of schools lie in order to maintain the hetero-, cissexist politics that are defended as tradition. Now, Title IX covers a lot more than just sports, but athletics has been one of the more contentious arenas of Title IX implementation and compliance.
Though some argue Title IX is damaging to men (it’s not, really), that it has not really been complied with by a large number of institutions, and that it has been rendered toothless in several ways, girls’ and women’s participation in athletics has increased over 900% at the high school level and 500% at the college level. The increasing number of female athletes means that there are an increasing number of girls and women gaining access to the psychological and social health benefits that are strongly associated with participating in sports (at least, until you hit the college level; the stresses of being a student athlete in college are myriad, but that is another conversation for another time). Participation in sports, particularly team sports, has also been linked to more well-rounded social skills and increased leadership skills, not mention providing opportunities for both competitive and collaborative experiences. These experiences and skills are valuable to anyone in the work force, as it is currently established. They are, arguably, even more important for girls and women who are entering the work force at a disadvantage. Though there is clearly more work to do, I think the progress made toward parity in athletics so far is definitely worth celebrating.
Also worth celebrating: the organization behind National Girls & Women in Sports Day, the Women’s Sports Foundation. The WSF advocates for female athletes at all levels of play, conducts research on gender bias and sports participation, and helps fund aspiring competitive athletes. Those, as far as I am concerned, are good things, but what I find particularly worthy of celebration is just how inclusive the Foundation in the information it provides and the issues it tackles. Access for disabled athletes? Yep. Issues pertinent to LGBTQI athletes? You betcha! The intersection of race and gender? Yeah! Media representation? Of course. Sexual harassment and sexual violence? That, too. While greater and more comprehensive coverage is necessary in order for the Women’s Sports Foundation to be as inclusive as possible (I would love to see some connection with Health at Every Size, for instance), I would argue that they are definitely headed in the right direction—particularly as the sports world is not known for its willingness to tackle intersectionality.
So, let’s celebrate women in sports! Let’s celebrate our sheroes! And let’s also look to the future we want for sports, make plans to get there, and get to work building opportunities for future athletes.
Now, let’s all get out there and play like girls!