Why are so few girls playing high-school sports?
Some say it’s because coaches are keeping teams lean and mean to make them more competitive
Chico High School senior Lily Zhao remembers being nervous during her first field-hockey tryout: The memory of being cut from the soccer team in seventh grade was still in the back of her mind. Zhao, 17, said she was initially hesitant about putting herself in the position to be turned down a second time.
Happily, her fears were unfounded, and she has represented the Panthers for four seasons on the field while also running track and cross country.
Still, she has noticed that many girls have become discouraged from playing sports after being cut from a team. “My friend just told me the other day that she tried out for tennis [only] because she knew she wouldn’t be cut,” she elaborated.
Chico High isn’t the only place where girls are opting out of team sports. Data show that the participation rate of high-school girls in the entire Chico Unified School District is considerably lower than that of their male counterparts. A five-year average of Chico High sports rosters shows 120 more spots on boys’ teams than girls’, while Pleasant Valley High has had an average of 185 more male participants.
This means, on average, 305 more team spots are offered each year to male high-school students than females. That is roughly equal to the size of the entire girls’ sports program at Chico High during a typical year.
A federal law known as Title IX was enacted in 1972 to ensure that equal opportunities were given to both sexes during educational activities. It is often used to monitor the state of female sports programs at the high-school and college levels.
According to the California Interscholastic Federation, the state governing body for high-school athletics, schools must meet at least one of the criteria identified in a three-part test to be identified as Title IX compliant.
One criterion is that the school must show that the athletic participation rates by gender are within 5 percentage points of the total enrollment for that gender. The disparity between the number of girls who play sports and the total enrolled at Pleasant Valley High is 12 percent.
Schools can also prove their Title IX compliance by adding girls’ sports teams or administering surveys to the student body to identify the interests of the female population in order to identify new sports programs or activities that should be offered.
Janet Brinson, CUSD’s director of categorical services, who serves as Title IX coordinator for the district, said equitable programs are offered to both male and female athletes. Girls may choose not to participate because there are many other activities that they can devote their time to, such as theater, art and Future Farmers of America.
“In a large school, there are more things to pull kids away from sports,” Brinson said.
Pleasant Valley High Athletic Director Pam Jackson is unsure of the reason for the shortage of female athletes. “We would certainly like to see more girls participate,” she stated. She has noticed that more and more girls are specializing in just one sport instead of playing two or three.
In addition, Jackson said many girls are choosing to play on intramural teams, such as the Chico Area Recreation District basketball league, because there is less pressure and shorter distances to travel for games, saving time for school work. Other potential female athletes have decided to focus on volunteer activities or internships.
“The physical-education department pushes school sports by holding more parent meetings and educating people about the opportunities,” she said, indicating that, although the school has provided athletic programs, girls are not showing high levels of interest.
Bob Feaster, the district’s assistant superintendent in charge of human resources, said the athletic directors at both high schools routinely survey their students.
“I have confidence that our schools are in compliance with Title IX. They do not minimize any opportunities given to female athletes, and there is a female athletic director looking out for them,” Feaster said.
He added that the district has been financially strapped—only about $200,000 is dedicated to the sports program each year—and many of the teams rely on outside funding from sports boosters. Football is the only real moneymaker. The funds raised by charging admission to the games and selling merchandise go to support the other sports, Feaster said.
“We love sports, and we want our girls to get involved,” he said.
Catherine Strisower’s children have attended both high schools in the district. She disagrees with Jackson and thinks male athletes are given an unfair advantage in the district’s sports program.
“The coaches seem to want to keep all of the same girls together on the teams to keep them in training all though the year, and that doesn’t give the other girls a chance,” she said, adding that more girls are cut than boys and that the process is harder on them.
She said that her daughter was cut from the Chico High volleyball team after playing at Marsh Junior High. She was disappointed that her child was unable to gain the health and social benefits of being on the team.
Zhao thinks that the high-school sports program is understandably competitive—after all, people want that patch to put on their letterman’s jacket—but perhaps too much so. She said some of the most important lessons she has learned have nothing to do with scoreboards and trophies.
A survey of 10,000 high school students conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found that the No. 1 reason why girls and boys participate in team sports is simply to have fun. Winning was ranked 12th by the girls and eighth by the boys.
“When I was on JV, I wondered why we couldn’t tie during our games, because if we won, then the other team would be sad, and we would be taking away their happiness,” Zhao explained, adding that while she thinks of herself as a competitive person, she isn’t a really competitive person.
Girls would benefit from the confidence boost that comes from playing a good game and the close-knit friendships that grow among teammates, she said. Too many have been scared away by the high level of competition.
“Society is focused on winning so much that it makes it even harder to lose,” she said.