Title IX, signed on June 23, 1972, was a game changer. It altered the rules for federally funded activities in education, making it illegal to discriminate against women and girls in this area. It also gave them the opportunity to participate in sports and physical activities, creating a path for some of our greatest athletes, like Mia Hamm and Sheryl Swoopes.
Title IX built a strong policy-based foundation, but 46 years later, we know that our work has really only just begun. While many systemic and cultural changes — from reductions in physical education programs in public schools to increasingly higher costs of participation in competitive sports — have led to a drop in physical activity among all kids, girls are still getting the short end of the stick.
At Nike, we believe if you have a body, you’re an athlete. But fewer and fewer girls hold that statement to be true about themselves. More than 38 percent of girls (versus 25 percent of boys) in America don’t participate in sport. Girls are consistently two years behind boys in physical literacy skills. We may not be entirely sure why this gap exists, but we know the scale of its impact. Generally speaking, when girls lack the competence, they also lack the confidence to engage in sports. Children as young as 8 years old begin defining themselves as athletes, or not.
When girls walk away from sport this early in life, it affects more than just their health and happiness. Research shows that physically active kids are 15 percent more likely to attend college, and earn 7 to 8 percent more money, on average. Essentially, play equals power.
So, the big question today is, how can we all come together to truly, finally deliver on the promise of Title IX to promote gender equality in sports? For starters, we’d love to share some important lessons we’ve learned from our investments with community and school-based partners that we believe could have implications for all stakeholders:
1. Smart program design and coaching are key. If we don’t design programs specifically for and with girls in mind, they will sit on the sidelines, or worse, stop showing up. Also, If we don’t offer the presence and expertise of female coaches, girls will be less inclined to participate. We know that strong women make good role models for girls and help boost their confidence both on and off the court/field/track, yet only 28 percent of youth coaches are female. Programs like the Mamba League have shown us what’s possible in this context. Inspired by Kobe Bryant’s own youth experiences and coaching philosophy, the Mamba League was created to inspire girls and boys to learn basketball fundamentals and to build self-assuredness through leading an active, healthy lifestyle. Nike worked closely with the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club to create a program that encouraged an equal number of boys and girls teams at every site and targeted female coaches to lead the girls-only teams. Every single girls’ team was led by female coaches, which drew girls to participate in record numbers — they made up 48 percent of the League in its first year. Those numbers held up in year two as well, even after the Mamba League doubled in size.
2. Data gaps will continue to hinder us. We know that what gets measured, gets done. While there is some data available on adolescent and teenage participation in sports in after-school programs, like the Boys and Girls Clubs, the current data sets do not fully capture sports participation for younger kids (12 years of age and under). They also don’t adequately cover gender breakdowns. And we know that physical activity does more than create good health. It contributes to leadership, productivity and innovation. It lowers depression and crime, increases educational achievement and income levels, and generates returns to businesses. This is why it is so critical to create access for girls — and all kids — to have early positive experiences with sport, so they may reap the benefits over their lifetime. More research needs to be performed in order for all of us to better understand — and address — the issues at hand. Without a baseline for how many girls are participating in sports and other physical activities, or details on where and how we are falling short, we will not be able to successfully evaluate any of our current efforts and investments. Once fueled with this information, as program funders, we may better examine and better channel/invest our time, energy and resources toward creating innovative, proven solutions to get more girls — and kids, in general — active.
3. This is everyone’s issue. No one organization or sector can increase girls’ sports participation alone. This has to be a team effort in order to succeed. We need multi-stakeholder engagement — and we need to visit this subject together on an ongoing basis. We applaud the continuing collaboration between the City of Los Angeles, The Getty Foundation, and non-profit as well as corporate institutions who are gathering in L.A. on June 23 to help get more girls moving across the city. The Aspen Institute Project Play 2020 initiative is another great example of multi-stakeholder engagement in the United States. The consortium of organizations — of which Nike is a founding member — aims to develop shared goals and advance collective action around making sports accessible to all kids in the US, regardless of zip code, ability or gender.
Title IX Day is more than just a moment for reflection and celebration on how far we’ve come to build gender equity in athletics. It’s a call to action to break down the existing barriers for girls so they can confidently get in the game. Because we know that once they start, they won’t want to stop.
Caitlin Morris is the General Manager of Global Community Impact at Nike, where she focuses on getting kids active and reversing the physically inactive epidemic. Nike is a founding member of the Aspen Institute Project Play 2020 initiative, which is a multiyear effort by leading organizations to grow national sport participation rates and related metrics among youth. Learn more about Project Play at www.ProjectPlay.us.