Early in my teaching career, I worked in a coed boarding school, which required all of its students to play a sport each season. While the school certainly supported the boys’ teams, there was a subtle but slightly stronger emphasis given to girls’ athletics. This may have been a result of the school’s decision to embrace coeducation at about the same time the government had approved “Title IX”, the federal mandate requiring schools to offer the same number of athletic programs for both genders.
While boys were occasionally criticized for caring too much about sports and not enough about academics, (I remember being taken aback when a colleague referred to a boy who was more interested in hockey than history as a “puck head”), girls were encouraged to push themselves to their athletic limits. There was a lot of “You Go Girls!” on those Connecticut playing fields back in the 80’s.
I was reminded of that emphasis on girls’ sports during the past few weeks, as I watched the American women excel in London. (Someone said that, if the American women were their own country, they’d be in the top 4 of all medal winners.) While I wish the American soccer team had shown a bit more humility after winning the gold medal, especially given some of the uneven refereeing that helped them in the medal rounds, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to being proud of my countrywomen, especially athletes like Gabby Douglass who overcame incredible odds.
But beyond the realm of athletics, my take-away from all of this is that institutional push can change a culture, and that in turn, can change the wider society. In the 80’s we emphasized girls’ athletics, and the results are reflected in today’s triumphs for athletes like Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.
If we could muster the same sort of enthusiasm today for educational opportunity, just imagine what this might mean for tomorrow’s gold medal winners. If we could be as passionate about scholarship programs and financial aid initiatives as we were about field hockey and the parallel bars, who knows who will end up on that future platform?