Three Cheers for Female Athletes!

Three Cheers for Female Athletes!

Gender equity in youth sports
Sarah Jones/Wikimedia Commons

Should females play sports?

Of course they should! I see no reason why sports cannot provide the same benefits to females which we claim for males.

  • Physically—Athletes can learn sport skills and increase their health and fitness.
  • Psychologically—They can develop leadership skills, self-discipline, respect for authority, competitiveness, cooperativeness, sportsmanship, and self-confidence. Moreover, sports can be just plain fun!
  • Socially—Sports provide an opportunity to become part of an ever expanding network of friends and acquaintances.

What arguments have been presented against females playing sports?

The debate about females playing sports has a long and contentious history. In Rainer Martens’ classic volume titled Joy and Sadness in Children’s Sports, a summary was presented of the positions of both the opponents and proponents of girls sports. The convictions were based on testimonies in legal/court cases.

  • Opponents: Sports are physically harmful for females. Proponents: A myth unsubstantiated by medical evidence.
  • Opponents: Vigorous sports endanger the female’s reproductive organs. Proponents: Also unsubstantiated by medical evidence. Actually, it’s the external male reproductive organs that are more vulnerable.
  • Opponents: Sport participation harms the menstrual cycle. Proponents: The reverse is true. Physical activity improves regularity and lessens menstrual cramps.
  • Opponents: Girls bones are more fragile and are injured more often. Proponents: Girls have smaller, but not more fragile bones. Sports medicine data suggest girls do have a slightly higher rate of minor sport injuries, but boys have a much higher rate of severe injuries.
  • Opponents: Heavy blows to the breast will cause breast cancer. Proponents: Unsubstantiated by medical evidence.
  • Opponents: Girls suffer severe social consequences from facial injuries frequently incurred in sports. Proponents: Accurate information on the frequency of permanent facial injuries to boys and girls doesn’t exist. Such an argument implies girls’ faces are more valuable than those of boys!
  • Opponents: Sport participation for girls develops unfeminine, bulging muscles. Proponents: Exercise physiologists have found this to be untrue.
  • Opponents: Girls become masculinized through sport participation and are moved toward lesbianism. Proponents: Absurd! The percentage of lesbians in sports is approximately the same as in the general population.
  • Opponents: Girls are not as skilled, and the physical inequity would ruin the sense of sport. Proponents: Before puberty, boys and girls are more similar than different with respect to their physical characteristics. This includes levels of performance on fundamental motor skills that underlie sport skills. After puberty, boys have a decided advantage in sports demanding speed and strength.
  • Opponents: Sports place too much psychological stress on girls. Proponents: Girls respond to stressful situations in essentially the same way as boys do.
  • Opponents: Male coaches will sexually exploit girls. Proponents: Unfortunately, it’s also possible male coaches may sexually abuse boys and that female coaches may abuse boys or girls.

What’s the bottom line? Medical and scientific evidence consistently substantiates positions held by those who favor sport participation by females.

How much of an increase has there been in sport participation by females?

Over the past several decades, one of the most notable and (in my opinion) highly-desirable features of youth sports is the huge increase in participation by girls and young women. There’s no precise accounting of the number of children and adolescents who participate in the various community and agency-sponsored programs (e.g., Boys and Girls Clubs, Little League Baseball, American Youth Soccer Organization). However, the National Federation of State High Associations surveys the number of participants in school-sponsored sports on an annual basis. In the 2015-16 school year, the total number of boys playing in interscholastic programs exceeded that of girls by approximately 1.2 million. From 1985-86 to 2015-16, boys increased their participation 35.9% (3,344,275 to 4,544,574). But for the past 30 years, girls increased their participation 84.0% (1,807,121 to 3,324,326). Will the number of females who play sports continue to rise? Hopefully, the answer is “yes.” But a myriad of societal factors are involved, and only time will tell.

Should girls and boys compete against each other?

During childhood years, only very slight sex differences in body structure and motor performance are present. On a purely physical basis, there’s no reason why prepubescent boys and girls should not be on the same teams competing with and against each other. The levels of performance and the chances for causing or sustaining injury related to size and strength do not differ significantly between the two sexes during childhood.

The situation changes drastically during adolescence. As males gain more in height, weight, muscle mass, and strength, it is not possible for females to fairly and safely compete against them in most sports. After age 11, males and females should have their own competitive opportunities in those sports in which strength and body size are determinants of proficiency and injury risk. In essence, after puberty, girls should have separate but equal opportunities for sport participation.