Nine-year-old Erica Mitzel isn’t like most girls. She enjoys getting muddy, tackling boys and playing rugby on an all-boys team. She tells people that if they want padding for protection, they should go play football. It is a matter of pride for her to prove she is just as tough—or tougher—than the boys.
“It lets me show the boys that girls can do anything that boys do,” said the Keller, Texas, resident.
Her mother, Olivia, watches her little girl’s fearless defensive tackling proudly from the sidelines.
“She expects the boys not to treat her any differently,” said Olivia, noting that there was not a girls tackle rugby team in their area. “She gets in there and they take her down. It doesn’t make me nervous in the least.”
On the 40th anniversary this June of the landmark Title IX legislation, which ensures equal access to both men and women in federally-funded educational programs and activities, including sports, it seems like we have come a long way. But perhaps not as far as we hoped.
While Erica’s acceptance on the boys’ team is a stride, she didn’t have many options. Although boxing, soccer and rugby do have girls’ leagues, it is rare if not impossible to find girls football and baseball leagues. And even when there are leagues, often there are fewer girls teams than boys.
“High school boys have 1.3 million more sports opportunities than girls,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic swimmer and triple gold medalist who serves as the senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation. “There has been progress without equity.”
MORE WOMEN IN SPORTS
In 1972, just one in 27 girls participated in high school varsity sports while today it has increased to about two in five, according to the foundation. In women’s collegiate programs the increase is more than 500 percent. Before Title IX, only tennis and golf had established professional tours. Today, there are female boxers, women’s professional leagues for soccer, volleyball, bowling and two for basketball.
Still, there is a huge gap in offerings. The old notion that girls just don’t have the same interest as boys in such contact sports as wrestling, boxing, rugby or football just isn’t true, said Hogshead-Makar. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are currently 1,561 girls playing on boy’s football teams, 698 playing baseball and 7,351 wrestling nationally.
“The reason this is so pernicious a myth is because you don’t see a lot of girls playing sports on television other than during the Olympics,” said Hogshead-Makar. “But when you have kids and you are in the mix, you see that their girls are just as interested as their boys are in all sports. Each sport offers something unique. With the contact sports, girls really like the teamwork, the physical nature of it, the sense of being comfortable with being powerful when they play their sports.”
NEED FOR MORE GIRLS’ SPORTS PROGRAMS
Clubs and leagues around the nation need to be more proactive in creating opportunities for girls, said Kurt Weaver, Director, Youth & High School Rugby/USA Rugby.
“If we are starting a boys team in the area, we have to ask why we are not adding a girls team at the same time,” he said. “We want girls to have the same opportunity. I think that the women that have played national sports want to be playing the same game, the same size field with the same rules as the men, but they like playing with their gender. They just want equality.”
That’s why 18-year-old Meya Bizer finds herself alone in the locker room at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas. During high school recruiting, she was the lone female among 500 guys trying out for a spot on a college football team. The coach at St. Mary was the only one to take her seriously and offered her a scholarship to play kicker on their team. It took a while for the guys to warm up to her and she had to prove herself.
“As a girl they will laugh at you at first and you have to earn their respect as a team leader, being one of the people who shows you are serious,” she said, noting that she has earned their respect now and expects to be starting in the coming season. But she is not fully satisfied with her career. She acknowledges that physically she cannot keep up with her male counterparts. This keeps her from playing her dream positions of wide receiver or free safety on the men’s team.
“I’m really competitive and so for me to be pushing myself so hard and not beating them is frustrating. I would like to be a wide receiver or a free safety, but I am not able to catch as well as they do, I don’t have the speed and I can’t out jump them anymore,” she said. “With girls, I feel like I might have a real chance.”
But there is not a women’s football team and although she really wanted to play rugby, the women’s team did not offer scholarships.
WHEN GIRLS CAN NO LONGER PLAY WITH BOYS
Kristian Jaycon, a 9th grader at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Worth, said she was forced to quit playing baseball with boys when she turned 9. She tried softball but was not pleased.
“The girls were slower and more dramatic. At that time I was a big tomboy, I had grown up with boys all my life,” she said. “I was frustrated. I had played baseball since I was little.”
Instead, she played on a girl’s soccer team. Now 14, she says she will give softball another try.
“As I got older, I think the girls have grown up,” she said. “If I am good, I would like to try out for my high school team.”
Erica Mitzel has been told that at the age of 11, she too cannot play with boys anymore. She vows she will stop playing before she plays on a girl’s team. “I don’t like playing with girls. I just prefer the boys,” she says.
Weaver of USA Rugby, who thinks Erica could compete at the national level in girls rugby, hopes to change her mind by having her showcase a new girl’s rugby team in the area. Olivia is just grateful her daughter has had the opportunity. “I think she has more confidence, she has learned about self image, and I think she is taking from it that she can be/do anything boys can do,” she said. “She is treated equally by her teammates, and they support her on the field… Her father is really proud of her. So am I.”