In this week’s New York Times “Well” blog, Tara Parker-Pope asks an interesting question: “Do sports make a long-term difference in a woman’s life?” So far, it’s been difficult to gauge whether sports, which seem to be associated with lower teenage pregnancy rates, better grades and higher self-esteem, are the direct cause of these benefits. Almost forty years out from Title IX, which opened up high school and college sports to women, Michelle Obama has begun a nationwide campaign to improve schoolchildrens’ health. But other researchers have asked a different question: what effect do participation in sports have on girls’ lives?
Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has taken it a step further, focusing on state-by-state variations. Parker-Pope reports that “using a complex analysis, Dr. Stevenson showed that increasing girls’ sports participation had a direct effect on women’s education and employment. She found that the changes set in motion by Title IX explained about 20 percent of the increase in women’s education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women.”
This seems pretty radical, right? As a person who never did sports as a child, this makes me wish that I had picked up a soccer ball. Other researchers studied the impact of youth sports on women’s long-term health, and found that “the increase in girls’ athletic participation caused by Title IX was associated with a 7 percent lower risk of obesity 20 to 25 years later, when women were in their late 30s and early 40s.”
Others say that for children of both sexes, sports teach valuable life lessons. Darrell Burnett, a California clinical psychologist who wrote the book It’s Just a Game!, said that team sports teach kids how to make mistakes. “I think the biggest thing that sports teaches kids is that it’s OK to make a mistake,” he said. “In baseball [if] you hit .300, seven times [in 10 at-bats] you were out. When you make a mistake it’s OK. You can learn from it and move on.”
There is still, clearly, room for improvement. Today 1 in 3 high school girls play sports, compared with half of boys. And others compare sports for children to a pressure cooker, rather than an affirming team experience. But the idea that sports might be particularly useful for girls is an interesting one, especially with complaints that women’s voices are missing from the people who are planning the Olympics. And who knows – maybe someday soon, female athletes will finally start to be compensated like their male peers.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.