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The Role Model Thing

by Mariah Burton Nelson

little girls need heroes,
but they also need information.

A few years ago, while coaching high school basketball, I noticed something odd about our best player, a six-foot sophomore guard named Michelle. She was agile and selfless, averaging six assists and six steals per game. Yet when her name was announced, she would shuffle onto the court hunched over like an old woman with osteoporosis.

“Why do you walk like that?” I asked.

“I’m embarrassed,” she admitted. She felt shy about being a star. Athletic excellence just didn’t seem right -- in a girl.

Oh dear, I thought. This was 1994. It was not the 1950s. I wanted to lecture her: “Have you no idea how many women over the years have worked hard to get you to this position, where you can develop your talent, where you can play each week in front of hundreds of adoring parents and peers, where you can work toward a full athletic scholarship to a major university? Embarrassed by success? Michelle, it’s good to be successful! It’s good for girls to be successful. You’re fifteen years old. Hasn’t anyone told you that yet?”

Somehow I managed to skip the lecture. Instead I asked, “Who do you look up to?”

“Sheryl Swoopes,” she said immediately. Swoopes had scored 47 points for Texas Tech in the NCAA championship game the previous season.

“How does she carry herself?” I asked.

“She looks proud,” said Michelle, lifting her chin.

Two years later, Sheryl Swoopes and the national women’s basketball team toured the country, winning 60 games en route to an Olympic gold medal. Michelle attended one of their games. By then Michelle had come to resemble Sheryl, walking with an air of confidence that inspired younger teammates. She had come to understand that “Little girls need big girls to look up to,” as basketball star Teresa Edwards put it when she was named to the Olympic team.

The need for role models became a sort of theme song for the American women in the 1996 Olympians. Lisa Leslie, the starting center on the basketball team, said, “You recognize that you're representing your country -- especially the little girls who hopefully will follow in our footsteps."

Gold-medal-winning tennis player Lindsay Davenport said, “These Olympics, probably more than any before, are showing a lot of little girls it’s okay to sweat, it’s okay to play hard, it’s okay to be an athlete.”

Swimmer Amy Van Dyken said after winning four gold medals, “Growing up, we didn’t have as many role models as the boys did. Girls need to understand it’s cool to be athletic.”

It’s definitely cool to be athletic. Role models surely make life easier.
Yet American women did not achieve their unprecedented success in the 1996 Olympics because little girls had big girls to look up to. They were successful because of Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in high school and college. They were successful because after athletic directors dragged their feet about enforcing the law for the first decade, and after the Supreme Court weakened the law with the Grove City decision in 1984, feminist activists lobbied Congress to pass the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act (opposed by the NCAA, and enacted over President Reagan’s veto), which clarified that Title IX applies to athletic programs. American Olympians were successful because, 24 years after the passage of Title IX, schools and universities were finally giving women a chance to compete.

Discrimination remains the norm: men receive two-thirds of all athletic scholarships; male coaches are paid more than women for coaching women’s teams; men coach more than half of all women’s teams, while women coach fewer than one percent of men’s teams. But in response to frequent lawsuits, high schools and universities are gradually (albeit begrudgingly) coming into compliance with the law.
Michelle and my other high school players had never heard of Title IX. When I talk to college students, few know who Billie Jean King was. Young women today have little sense of their own history or their legal rights. Many still believe the myth that football “makes money for the school.” (In fact 80% of football programs lose money.) Or that women “deserve” fewer opportunities because their sports are rarely revenue-producing. (In fact courts have consistently ruled that financial considerations are irrelevant in Title IX cases.) Or that women just aren’t as interested as men are in receiving $100,000 athletic scholarships. (Yeah, right).

So little girls need heroes, sure, but they also need information about who female athletes were in the past and who they could be in the future. They need to know about coaches, commentators, administrators, officials, sponsors, and scholars. What was the AIAW, and what was its philosophy? Why are female gymnasts so often injured? How many golf courses still discriminate against women, whether because of race or gender? Which companies design sports clothing and equipment based on women’s bodies? Why are African-American women successful in track and basketball, but rarely in golf or swimming? Why is less than five percent of sports media coverage devoted to women? In which sports careers have women made the greatest strides?

Carole Oglesby, who wrote Women and Sport: From Myth to Reality in 1978, is a pioneering athlete, professor, and political organizer who has been helping the rest of us distinguish myth from reality for more than three decades. We can trust her to tell us the truth. This book is full of role models but it’s also overflowing with useful and accurate information about women’s rights, women’s experiences, and the history and culture of women’s sports. It will show readers their place in a long line of impressive and devoted sportswomen. It will take us one step closer to a world in which athletic girls and women feel entitled to compete, entitled to win, and entitled to stride onto athletic courts with pride, their heads held high.

(c)Mariah Burton Nelson is a professional speaker and national expert on leadership, sports and success.  She is a former college and pro basketball player, journalist for several major publications including Newsweek, New York Times and The Washington Post and wrote the first nationally syndicated women’s sports column.  Mariah is also President of the D.C. chapter of the National Speakers Association.  For information on her speaking and training programs call 352-438-0261  
[email protected] or visit www.ExpertSpeaker.com/Speakers/nelson.htm  

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