At the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), we believe all children — no matter their ability, age, gender identity, race, ethnicity or household income — deserve equitable access to high-quality sport opportunities. Research shows that when children play sports, they increase their chances to grow up healthy, build friendships, and develop skills like teamwork and respect. And while 94 percent of park and recreation agencies offer youth sports, there are significant disparities in who has access to and benefits from sports participation.
This June as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the landmark piece of federal legislation prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education settings, we can both celebrate many achievements and recognize that our work to build equitable youth sports is not finished. Here are some of the recent successes we celebrate:
- The percentage of women competing at the highest levels also has increased with the number of women representing the United States in the Olympics growing significantly. In fact, women made up 54 percent of the U.S. delegation competing in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021.
- In 2022, after a national outcry and an advocacy campaign led by women athletes, the U.S. Soccer Federation agreed to a deal to pay the men’s and women’s U.S. National Team equally in the next union contract, working to close the persistent gender pay gap.
- And perhaps most importantly, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), before the passage of Title IX, only one in 27 girls played sports. Today, that number is one in five.
The benefits of playing sports for girls are enormous. According to the WSF, girls and women who play sports report higher levels of confidence and lower levels of depression. Girls and women involved in sports also have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not. Girls active in sports during adolescence and young adulthood are 20 percent less likely to get breast cancer later in life 1.
Yet, although there is a federal law that mandates equal sport participation between boys and girls in academic institutions, significant disparities remain. According to the WSF, in 2020, girls were more likely to have never played (43.1 percent girls vs. 34.5 percent boys) and less likely to be currently playing sports (36.4 percent girls vs. 45.6 percent boys). WSF’s 2020 Chasing Equity report also found that girls who identify as people of color, have a lower socioeconomic background, and reside in urban and rural areas often start sports later, participate in lower numbers, and drop out earlier compared to girls who identify as white, have a higher socioeconomic background and reside in suburban communities. Those disparities continue beyond youth sports participation, influencing future opportunities available for women through collegiate and professional athletics, and affecting career opportunities and earning potential within the sports industry.
The anniversary of Title IX reminds us that although we’ve made progress, girls and women still face significant barriers on and off the field. It’s time we prioritize strategies and investment to close the gender equity gap in sports for good, so all girls and women can benefit from sports equally.
Parks and recreation can be that solution. Local park and recreation agencies reach millions of youth annually, a reach second only to public schools, positioning park and recreation professionals as the perfect catalyst to drive youth sports equity. As leaders in communities, park and recreation professionals are critical to ensuring all kids have access to opportunities in sports, ensuring all girls who want to play have equitable access to the same opportunities as their counterparts.
This month, and in the months to come, we encourage you to celebrate 50 years of Title IX with us and identify actionable steps your agency can take to help ensure that all girls and women can play, grow and succeed on and off the field.
1. Staurowsky, E. J., DeSousa, M. J., Gentner, N., Miller, K. E., Shakib, S., Theberge, N., & Williams, N. (2009). Her Life Depends On It II: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women.
About the National Recreation and Park Association
The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is the leading not-for-profit organization dedicated to building strong, vibrant and resilient communities through the power of parks and recreation. With more than 60,000 members, NRPA advances this mission by investing in and championing the work of park and recreation professionals and advocates — the catalysts for positive change in service of equity, climate-readiness, and overall health and well-being. For more information, visit nrpa.org. For digital access to NRPA’s flagship publication, Parks & Recreation, visit parksandrecreation.org.