June 18, 2012

Lax oversight kept sports equality in backfield

Maine's success in leveling girls' and boys' playing fields is not typical nationwide.

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UMO’s Cindy Blodgett drives to the basket in 1996, showing why children at the time wore her No. 14 replica jersey.

1996 Staff File Photo by John Ewing

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Andrea Cayer

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For more than a decade, Estler served as the school's director of equality, dealing with issues of gender equity and compliance with Title IX. She was there when Blodgett -- the Fairfield native who led Lawrence High to four consecutive state titles and, to the delight of Mainers everywhere, turned down offers to play college basketball out of state -- enrolled at Orono and led the Black Bears to four appearances in the NCAA tournament from 1994-98.

"When you saw little boys around town wearing Cindy Blodgett's number and T-shirt, that's powerful," said Estler, who still teaches a course on higher education and the law. "Title IX can be portrayed, particularly in the male-dominated sports media, as taking something away from men. So when you have a phenomenon like Cindy -- I remember hearing about her when she was in sixth grade -- I think that helped everyone, male and female.

"How could you not embrace that hometown hero?"

Of course, not every state has a Cindy Blodgett, and even Maine may have to wait decades before anyone similar comes along. Still, it's that change in culture -- that female athletes can be admired and celebrated and deserve equal opportunities to play sports -- that is at the heart of the progress made.

High school girls in Maine, when measured against total school populations, have three times the sports participation rate as high school boys in Florida, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, citing a 2004 study.

NUMBERS STILL LAG

Still, more needs to be done, say proponents of the law. More high school girls took part in athletics nationally in 2010-11 than ever before -- nearly 3.2 million, according to the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations -- but that number remains 1.5 million fewer than the number of boys currently playing sports, and it is still half a million shy of the number of boys who played sports in 1972-73, the first year of Title IX.

Equality of participation in Maine schools is better than in many other states. According to the NFHS, last year's participation numbers -- one student playing three sports is counted as three participants -- were about 30,000 for boys and 25,000 for girls. In contrast, Alabama had about 61,000 for boys and 30,000 for girls.

"Let's close that gap," said Hogshead-Makar, who won three swimming gold medals in the 1984 Olympics before becoming a law professor. "Title IX has taught us a lot because there was a before and an after. We can look at those girls who didn't have athletic opportunities and 10 years later, see where they are health-wise, in the work force, and in dealing with obesity."

She said research clearly shows that girls who participate in sports get better grades, complete more education, are more likely to find full-time work in nontraditional careers, are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies, are less likely to smoke or use illegal drugs and are less likely to become obese, depressed, suicidal or develop breast cancer, heart disease or osteoporosis.

SO MANY POSITIVES

Andrea Cayer, a health education teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School, started teaching and coaching there in 1970. She coached a girls' track team in the 1970s that included a young Joan Benoit, who was then limited -- as were all girls in Maine -- to races no longer than 880 yards.

Anything longer was thought to be detrimental to their health and possibly a danger to their future reproductive capabilities, Cayer said. A decade later, Benoit famously won the first Olympic Women's Marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

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