The Color Gap in Girls' Sports

Coach Carl Walker is proud of his female athletes. As the girls' basketball and softball coach at Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in the District of Columbia, he has worked hard to develop a rapport with them and strengthen both programs.

In many ways, his work over the last five years has paid off. This will be the second year in a row that Dunbar has offered junior varsity girls' basketball, and just this fall, Walker's former all-Metropolitan player, Danielle Payne, is headed off to the University of Kentucky on an athletic scholarship.

But he remains frustrated by insufficient access to gyms, weight training facilities, and basic equipment. His softball team has 10 mitts -- but five of them are first-base gloves. "Mostly, we share with the other team," he laughs.

Coach Walker's dilemmas are not unique. According to Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, 85 to 90 percent of girls in the suburbs play youth sports compared to only 15 percent of urban girls, and, within cities, African American girls have only one-third of the opportunities to play as white girls. The Center's study of 312 NCAA Division 1 schools in 1997-1998 reported that only 20 percent of female student-athletes were women of color. Yet, while men's athletics have long been castigated for deeply entrenched segregation and discrimination, the race and class divisions in women's sports are virtually ignored.

Indeed, there is a sense of euphoria about women's sports in the U.S. The widespread celebration of African American athletes such as the Williams sisters and the underpaid, overfemmed stars of the WNBA might lead one to believe that the recent blossoming of women's sports has largely benefitted women of color. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the increasing role of corporate sponsors, professional training, and private money in athletics is transforming sports just as women's sports are becoming popular.

This privatization of sports is exacerbating longstanding race and class divisions while hiding them from the public eye. In the hoopla surrounding "the victory of the woman athlete," an important question is being ignored: why is this mythic growth spurt leaving women of color behind?

In search of answers, I returned this summer to the city I know best -- Washington, D.C. A hypersegregated region with vast racial disparities in income and education, the Washington metropolitan area is a microcosm of athletic segregation nationwide. The configuration of its public school sports programs, recreation departments, and private sports clubs provide insight into how and why this country continues to fail our female athletes of color.

The District v. the Suburbs

It has been nearly eight years since the District of Columbia's public school system submitted to pressure to reduce expenses citywide and drastically cut its athletics budget. Throughout the system, schools continue to feel the pinch. Unlike the late eighties and early nineties when each school received a per-sport allocation, the system now buys equipment and uniforms in bulk, doling them out on an as-needed basis.

Schools are forced to rely on independent fundraising and corporate sponsorship to keep their teams afloat, but few boosters are interested in girls' sports. Girls' sports programs scramble to cover the basics, especially in low-income areas. Few public high schools or junior highs offer much beyond varsity basketball, volleyball, softball, and track for girls. And as Coach Walker's experience shows, even these are drastically underfunded.

Meanwhile, the girls' sports programs at suburban schools in nearby Arlington County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland are thriving. In addition to the four girls' sports offered in most D.C. public schools, these suburban schools have five to seven other teams for girls, including soccer, field hockey, tennis, swimming, gymnastics -- even crew. Nearly every varsity sport has a junior varsity feeder team and is flanked by numerous elite private travel teams. Arlington County has a sports commission responsible for coordinating interscholastic athletics with these elite private sports clubs.

The differences between these suburban athletic programs and those in the District reflect larger racial and income disparities. Despite some recent integration, Arlington and Montgomery counties are still 77 percent white and have a median household income higher than the District's by $23,000 and $14,000, respectively. Not surprisingly, their school systems have higher athletic budgets and active booster clubs that raise additional funds for the teams. Many also have corporate sponsors.

District Pecking Order

Class and race inequities within the District also exacerbate the color line in girls' sports. There is an extensive network of independent and parochial schools in the D.C. region, with their own tiered leagues and tournament schedules. At the high school level, there are at least as many private schools as public ones. The private schools have athletic programs matching those in the suburbs, but their racial and economic diversity is as limited as the elite universities and colleges they feed.

There are also stark differences among D.C.'s public schools. Nowhere in D.C. are the privileges of race and class more evident than at Woodrow Wilson Senior High, a large public magnet school in an upper middle-class, mostly white area of northwest D.C.

Although Wilson's students are mostly black, it has nearly 36 times the percentage of white students as D.C.'s other large public high schools. Not only are its standardized test scores significantly higher and its dropout rate significantly lower, its athletic budget is more than twice that of any other public high school in the city. Wilson offers girls the opportunity to participate in golf, tennis, and swimming, and is the only public high school in the city to offer girls' lacrosse, soccer, wrestling, and crew.

Dr. Pat Briscoe, assistant director of athletics for the District, denies that race has anything to do with the inequities among D.C.'s public school girls' sports programs. Instead, she argues, the differences are due to the "cultural makeup of the students at the school. If you have a school with kids whose parents know about, say, crew, then the kids are interested and you offer it. But we can't afford to offer a sport where there's no interest."

Corporate Club Teams Dominate

Schools are not the only venue for girls to learn about or participate in competitive athletics. But Washington's extra-scholastic options are bleak. Fifteen years of city budget cuts have laid waste to D.C.'s public recreation centers. Daryl Tilghman, athletic director at Roosevelt High School, says that the impact on sports has been severe. "Since the recreation centers started closing down, there's no athletic development," he laments.

Actually, elite private teams now dominate the youth sports scene in many areas. Teams sponsored by big sports corporations like Nike, Easton, or Gatorade often run budgets into the millions of dollars per year. Athletes who want to make it to the top join these elite teams as young as age 8. There are precious few of these teams in D.C.; they too follow the path of white flight to the suburbs toward better resources, more business support, and more athletes with the income, family support systems, and time to join. For D.C.'s low-income families of color, the cost of membership, travel, and equipment -- which usually runs into the thousands of dollars per year -- is often prohibitive.

For D.C.'s girls of color, there are further obstacles. Participation in private teams requires an almost-daily time commitment on par with the large financial outlay. In a city where some 40 percent of students' families receive government aid, few D.C. teenagers are exempt from the obligation to provide either income or childcare. The responsibility weighs especially heavily on the girls. "Parents look at a boy and see an athlete. They look at a daughter and they see a babysitter," Coach Walker tells me.

As women's sports have been institutionalized within big money college athletics, elite private teams and leagues have become the principal site for player development and college recruitment. Without access to such venues, aspiring college athletes are far less likely to be seen by college coaches, much less given a scholarship. Shunning the underfunded schools and struggling rec centers in the District, college coaches, trainers, and recruiters flock to the richer, whiter suburbs that have laid claim to women's pre-college athletics as their domain.

Losing Out

When urban girls of color are denied the opportunity to participate equally in sports, they lose out on more than advanced motor skills. Sports have been shown to be an extremely effective vehicle for the empowerment of girls and young women, a cause of higher grades and increased graduation rates. And perhaps most important, sports are an avenue to higher education at an affordable price.

Because urban girl athletes of color are shortchanged at the pre-college level, they have vastly reduced access to the financial and admissions perks enjoyed by college athletes. According to the Northeastern Center, women of color comprise 40 percent of female Division I basketball and track athletes, and just 11 percent of female Division I athletes in the 23 other women's collegiate sports -- sports available at Wilson and in Arlington and Montgomery counties, but not in the D.C. Further, women of color make up 2.7 percent of coaches in Division 1 women's college sports and, excluding the historically black colleges, there is not a single woman of color Division 1 athletic director.

Nearly 30 years ago, the passage of Title IX set the precedent of using equal access to sports as the standard by which to measure gender discrimination in athletics. That law ensured the growth of women's sports by requiring schools to offer equal sports opportunities to men and women. If we now judge women's sports by the same standard, however, its sharp race and class inequities expose it to be a new site of athletic discrimination.

Longstanding institutional racism and increasing privatization of sports keep women of color the most underrepresented and undercompensated members of the sports world. While the problem shows itself in professional teams' front offices or at NCAA coaches' meetings, its roots are far closer to the ground -- at the Wilsons and the Dunbars, in cities like the District, and suburbs like Arlington. Until we demand a change, the so-called "victory of the woman athlete" will remain a myth for women of color.

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