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June 22, 2012

In urban areas, girls face obstacles 40 years after Title IX

By Adam Howard

Skylar Diggins has played sports since she was six years old. She joined soccer teams, gymnastics squads and finally tried basketball in her South Bend, Ind., hometown.

“That’s the one I ended up sticking with, basketball,” said Diggins. “I played year round; I didn’t even know I was good until I tried playing. My mom always told me, I’m going to keep you busy. She’s the reason why I even got involved.”

Diggins, 21, is now a point guard on Notre Dame’s basketball team. She topped 1,000 points as a guard in her first two seasons, and is a two-time All-American.

But Diggins, who is African-American, represents a rare success story among college athletes. The latest NCAA report found that during the 2009-2010 school year, just 11.6 percent of the women on college sports teams were black.

Although it has now been 40 years since Title IX — the groundbreaking education amendment that allowed women to participate equally in the same programs as their male counterparts — in many urban communities, children have limited options when it comes to choosing a team sport.

“The impact is primarily on African-American and Latino kids,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization serving urban communities. “Some Asian and some white kids — but predominantly African-American and Latino kids. We’ve seen some breakthroughs here and there, but when you look at something like tennis, you don’t see a whole lot of African-American players.”

Only 7 percent of female NCAA tennis players are black, whereas 73.6 percent are white. And the number of black women competing in in sports like water polo, squash and ice hockey is even lower. Only 1 percent of NCAA black female student athletes participate in water polo, less than one percent play ice hockey and 2.9 percent are on a squash team. Sports with the highest number of black women are bowling, basketball and outdoor and indoor track and field according to the NCAA 2009-2010 report.

Tina Sloan Green, co-founder and president of the Black Women in Sport Foundation, says the economic and educational disparities limit sports opportunities for many black students.

“Title IX is about opportunity and there is still not equitable opportunity for people of color and especially African-American women mainly because of the quality and the choices of sports facilities we have,” said Green.  “And it takes a lot of money to take part in sports like tennis, lacrosse, field hockey. In suburban and private schools often times you have those sports but in public schools, in urban areas, usually you’re limited to track and field, basketball and cheerleading. But if given the opportunity, talent would rise to the top.”

Even with traditional sports like basketball and football, the quality of the facilities between urban, suburban and private schools isn’t always equal.

“Private schools pride themselves in having fields and making sure all of those things are provided for a quality education,” said Green. “But look at the school buildings in urban areas – do they have a gym? Are the bathrooms clean? And transportation? Is there a late bus home for students?”

Ahgelique Davis, who coaches the girls’ lacrosse team at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, Pa., said the team has grown from three to nearly 30 players in three years – but not without a struggle.

“For every field that we have, which is a good field, schools in the suburbs have three or four brand new fields,” Davis said of the school, which has a large minority population. “But they also have the room and the space. We have buildings, concrete. So it’s about geography as well as economic resources.”

Minority students who do stick with sports won’t find many coaches who resemble them. Only 13.9 percent of female head coaches are women of color, according to the most recent data from the NCAA.

“A young woman needs to see that she too can become a head coach,” said Vivian Stringer, head coach of the Rutgers women’s basketball team. “She needs to understand the importance of continuing her career that she loves, playing or participating.”

The number of females who coach women’s teams — regardless of race — is the lowest it’s been in history at 39.5 percent, down from 90 percent in 1972.

Part of the reason for this, said Green, is because after Title IX, women’s sports became more popular and the competition to coach women’s sports grew fierce.

“There are decent salaries at Division 1 schools, so coaching became attractive to men,” she said. “Women started competing against men for the jobs and oftentimes, men are assumed to be better coaches.”

Four decades after Title IX, the fight for equality continues. Billie Jean King, former professional tennis player and winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles, says the Title IX anniversary is a call to action for younger generations.

“It is their turn to shape the future,” she said. “I’ve tried to help women more because we’re the ones who have been undeserved.”

Skylar Diggins credits her coach, Muffet McGraw with helping her develop not only as a player but also as a person. Diggins already feels responsible to serve as role model for younger female athletes.

“I thank the pioneers and the trailblazers, said Diggins. “Now I’m setting an example for the ones behind me.”