Venus and Serena Williams, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Jessica Mendoza, Michelle Wie… The sheer excellence of these female athletes of color might lead one to think that the playing field is finally level, for all girls and women. But the sad truth is that high schools across the country still do not give girls equal opportunities to play sports, and girls of color are doubly disadvantaged. That’s the main message of a report released today by the National Women’s Law Center and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, which presents new data in a new way to highlight athletic disparities on the basis of race and gender.

Because data on sports opportunities, or spots on teams, are not available by gender and race together, the report compares the opportunities provided by heavily minority schools (where 10 percent or less of the students are white) and heavily white schools (where 90 percent or more of the students are white). The major findings of the report are:

  • Over 40 percent of our nation’s schools are either heavily white or heavily minority.
  • Heavily minority schools not only offer fewer overall athletic opportunities (a race discrimination issue under Title VI) but also fail to distribute those limited opportunities equitably between boys and girls (a sex discrimination issue under Title IX).
  • In fact, 40 percent of heavily minority high schools, compared to 16 percent of heavily white schools, have large gaps between the percentage of spots on teams for girls and the percentage of students who are girls. These gaps suggest a lack of compliance with Title IX. This means that girls of color finish last in terms of chances to play sports.

The failure to give girls equal athletic opportunities deprives them of the lifelong benefits of playing sports—better health, academic and employment outcomes, as well as increased self-esteem and leadership skills. To help address the problem, the report includes steps that policymakers, communities and schools can take to help to improve opportunities for girls of color—from increasing racially and economically integrated educational opportunities to stepping up enforcement of Title IX and Title VI to increasing data transparency.

We must do much more to ensure that girls, and girls of color in particular, are not left behind when it comes to the many advantages associated with playing sports. Not just because it’s legally required, but also because it’s an important investment in their future.

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