More girls are playing sports, but access becoming segregated

From physical activity to collegiate opportunities, youth sports provide many benefits but tend to be concentrated in wealthier areas, a study finds.
Young girls playing basketball.
Posted at 3:55 PM, Mar 06, 2024

The participation of girls in sports has increased in recent years, but access to athletics is not always an even playing field, new research suggests. 

Researchers from The Ohio State University and Oregon State University published their findings last month in the journal Sociological Focus. The study shows that female participation in youth sports has increased from 300,000 in the early 70s to now over 3 million. 

The researchers said that socioeconomic status can often either foster or obstruct opportunities for youth sports among girls. They said girls of color, from lower social class families, and attending schools in lower-income neighborhoods are often denied these opportunities. 

Missing out on sports, they say, can have ramifications later in life, including on collegiate and job opportunities, as well as the benefits of physical activity. These girls also miss out on the numerous benefits that youth sports provide, the researchers said. 

"We tell that this is really about creating more sports, not less, we're in an environment where we're creating less and less opportunities," said study co-author Kirsten Hextrum of Oregon State University. "So how do we shift that discussion and see how to create more?"

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And even when girls are given opportunities in sports, not all opportunities are equal. In some cases, girls attend schools or live in areas with youth athletics, but those programs lack the resources and ability to provide high-quality opportunities for young athletes. 

Hextrum noted that one issue is that financial support for extracurricular activities in schools is being stripped. Over the last 40 years, she said that schools have seen athletics as an easy fix to budget issues. 

That has led to a more privatized model, where those with more resources can access personal coaching and other programs — but those programs often leave out children of lesser means, she said.

"How do we recognize that sports really shouldn't be relegated to the extra curriculum?" said Hextrum. "We as a society value them enough that they should be part of the formal curriculum in some way. That might be an idea for kind of keeping more robust funding around it."

Study co-author Christopher Knoester of Ohio State said that these opportunities are fading particularly among districts with a high proportion of students of color. 

"We see that particularly the number of sports offered and school size seem to be structural factors that can be linked to opportunities," he said. "We see those discrepancies in the number of sports particularly from … the most segregated schools. And so a vast proportion of the population goes to schools that are 85%-plus Black and Latino, or 85%-plus White. And those particular discrepancies in terms of sports opportunities were drastically different, and of course, that plays into some of our findings in terms of who has opportunities to play and being housed within schools."

While providing money and resources is one way to improve access, other obstacles must be addressed. 

"Driving a lot of the social class differences is the fact that there's a variety of different family structures, a variety of different people with different resources," Knoester said. "Part of addressing family support emphasis is having convenient, low-cost opportunities with transportation ... Trying to orchestrate these opportunities for people takes a lot of work and a lot of money and a lot of collaboration to get people together to play and participate."

Lynette Woodard, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and one of women's college basketball greatest scorers, said access to youth sports has made progress since she graduated from high school in 1978, but more progress is needed. 

"I would have to say there's a lot of progress to be made, but it's better than it was," Woodard said. "And so all you have to do is show up every day, showing up is half the battle. It can always be better, there's always gonna be some discrepancy somewhere but the fewer, the better."