How Celebrating Women in Sports Bolsters Women’s Leadership

Billie Jean King, tennis legend and founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation, is pictured here with girl athletes. (Photo Credit: Women’s Sports Foundation)

National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) is commemorated annually in the first week of February. According to its sponsor, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), the day represents “a national observance celebrating the extraordinary achievements of girls and women in sports.”

The WNBA honored female athletes on February 6, and was one of many institutions noting the value of sport in fostering not just fitness and health in girls and women, but also self-confidence and leadership skills. “Lead Her Forward” was the 2019 NGWSD theme, and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Deborah Antoine noted, “NGWSD is a great time to uplift these girls and women, along with the advocates using their platforms to inspire greatness in female athletes. We are also more committed than ever to protect Title IX, along with strong policies and safeguards for women in sports and all industries.”

Several marquee female athletes traveled to Capitol Hill to celebrate the day and advocate for women’s athletics. The contingent included WSF President and three-time Olympic bobsled medalist Elana Meyers Taylor, Paralympics swimming gold medalist Jessica Long, and World Rugby Hall of Famer Phaidra Knight.

The Capitol Hill visit focused on keeping Title IX strong, supporting a Senate bill to establish a commission on the state of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement, and advocating for more sports and fitness opportunities for girls and women at all levels.

In addition to pressing legislators to improve funding for and access to sports for girls and women, the athletes also had a little play time at the George Washington University campus. Star athletes led elementary, middle and high school girls in multi-sport clinics, including Olympic ice hockey medalist Meghan Duggan, 1984 Olympic hurdles gold medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, Paralympic basketball and alpine skiing gold medalist Alana Nichols, and three-time U.S. National Champion climber Sasha DiGiulian.  Following the clinics, WSF President Meyers Taylor led discussions on Title IX, and shared her thoughts on athletic and leadership opportunities for girls after graduation.

“Access to sports and all the benefits they provide is critical for girls and women. Sports teach girls leadership, teamwork and confidence,” said Meyers Taylor. “National Girls & Women in Sports Day is a great time to reconnect with the girls and women we serve and call for a national push to support girls and women in sports.”

The Women’s Sports Foundation partners with the National Women’s Law Center, George Washington University, Girls Inc. and the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition in promoting the nationwide day dedicated to women’s athletics. NGWSD began in 1987 to bring national attention to the promise of girls and women in sports, and has since evolved into an event to acknowledge the accomplishments of female athletes, the positive influence of sports participation, and the continuing struggle for equality for women in sports.

The WSF is a 501(c)(3), and since its formation in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King has advocated and organized to promote equal access to sports and physical activity for girls and women. While only a small fraction of athletes will play professionally or in top-tier college programs, engaging in sports and fitness activities improves mental and physical health throughout a lifetime. The WSF has relationships with more than 1,000 of the world’s elite female athletes, and has impacted the lives of more than three-million youth, high school and collegiate student-athletes.

The mission of the Women’s Sports Foundation “is dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring all girls access to sports.” There is no better example of this than its founder Billie Jean King, one of the premier female tennis players in history, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. King was a pioneer on and off the court. She was a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association, defeated Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match (brilliantly captured in the eponymous 2017 movie with Emma Stone and Steve Carrel) and was designated one of Life Magazine’s “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” in 1990. Exceptional on the court, King’s greatest legacy is no doubt the increased respect, visibility and compensation she gained for female tennis pros (and women athletes in general).

The WSF’s focus is not just on elite athletes, but also the benefits of sport for all girls and women. The WSF notes that it “distributes upwards of $10,000 per week from operating dollars to provide opportunities for socioeconomically underprivileged and inactive girls to participate in sports and physical activity.” The WSF has also been a powerful advocate for sports scholarships for women; scholarship money has increased from $100,000 in 1972 to over $1.8 billion across the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) today.

The WSF has fought for equal facilities and access to sports for girls and women, with major grant programs including GoGirlGo, which has gotten over one million girls physically active, and Sports 4 Life, which has targeted grass-roots sports opportunities for over 6,000 girls of color aged 11-18. The WSF has also given over 1,300 grants to champion athletes and teams to fund training and travel, and produced more than 40 studies on gender equity and sports.

Naturally, the WSF is a key supporter of “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,” the legislation that while perhaps not leveling the playing field, at least allowed access to it. The WSF works with NCAA leadership, the Office of Civil Rights, coaches, parents and media in maintaining support for the law, which bars gender discrimination in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. The law states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Consequently, girls’ participation in K-12 and collegiate sports has dramatically increased since the 1970s. Still, the WSF notes that only one-quarter of girls get sufficient physical exercise, and there are persistent gender, socioeconomic and racial barriers to health and fitness. This is crucial, as in addition to obvious health benefits, physical activity improves body image over time, reducing depression, eating disorders, and other mental health difficulties. Sports are also key in developing discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership skills, valuable attributes on and off the field.

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Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

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