When Dora Herrera, 55, was about 12 or 13 years old, she was no longer allowed to play sports. “My parents told me it was inappropriate for a young lady to be out and about. Once puberty set in, I had to grow up and be a lady.” Though she enjoyed playing roller derby, boxing, and baseball with the neighborhood children, she had to stay inside her home.
That was about 43 years ago, but some of these attitudes still remain. Johanna Rivera, 29, had a similar experience. “My parents never encouraged me to play a sport since I had to be home and clean up the house or take care of my brother and sister.” She says that many of her friends also had to go home and make dinner for the family. “We were women who had responsibilities. Sometimes it also felt like we had no business playing sports and being in the streets.”
In addition to cultural barriers, many times young Latinas can’t afford to participate in sports. According to a recent survey by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, a school pay-to-play fee was charged for 61 percent of sports participants and the average fee was $93. Twenty-one percent of the children had to pay a fee of $150 or more. Including additional team fees and other costs, the average cost for sports participation was $381.
These fees may keep many young Latinas from engaging in school sports. Teens from lower-income families participate in sports in much lower rates than teens from higher-income families. Cristina Gil, 21, says that her father was unsupportive when she wanted to play sports. “He didn’t see it as something he should spend money on.” For Rivera, it was the cost and the lack of parental involvement because her parents were always working. “They were never around nor had the money to register us when we were younger.”
For many young women, these kinds of early obstacles and discouragement will prevent them from ever attempting to play sports again. “From personal experience, being introduced to sports in high school is too late. I was already extremely busy and out of shape by then. Being out of shape and not having experience playing sports really decreases one’s self esteem or motivation to get involved,” Gil says. This dearth of Latina athletes is manifested in the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. In a roster of 21 players, there are only 2 Latinas.
For minority women who do continue to pursue sports, the challenges still remain. Angela Hattery, professor and associate director of Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University, points out that there is still much more work to be done 40 years after the passing of Title IX . She believes that though many minority women have participated in high school and college athletics, there are very few professional opportunities as coaches or administrators once they leave college. “You only needed to watch the NCAA women’s basketball tournament last March to see for yourself. The eight top teams (seeded 1 and 2 in the tournament) all had white coaches (two men and six women), despite the fact that 60 percent to 70 percent of the players were African-American.”
Organizations like Girls Inc are dedicated to addressing this disparity. The nonprofit “aims to make sports an integral part of girls’ lives and recognizes that girls have much to gain by early and sustained participation in sports.” They believe that though the passage of Title IX in 1972 has increased the number of girls participating in athletics, too many young women still face challenges. They’ve developed a program called Sporting Chance®, which helps girls develop their athletic skill and cultivate an interest in sports early on.
Experts say schools also need to make sports financially feasible for lower-income families. According to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll, only 6 percent of school sports participants received a waiver of the pay-to-play fees. Not only are athletic girls more likely to be healthier and more confident, economists have noticed that participation in sports at a young age correlates to higher wages, more educational opportunities, and professional success. Making sure all girls have the opportunity to play sports may have a lasting impact on the future of our country.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor for The Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Mamiverse. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jezebel, Ms. Magazine, and American Public Media. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or erikalsanchez.com.