Women’s athletic potential no longer chained at ankle

Keith Anderson
Guest Column

When Anna Keefer was still learning to walk, some of the state’s best boys high school long jumpers in Minnesota were hovering near the 20-foot mark.

The long jump is graceful and powerful—almost poetic in its ability to display raw jumping talent and quiet balance.
For decades there have been the standout boys who have pushed the limits at 23 and 24 feet, true masters of flight. But there have been plenty of exceptional boys right around that 20-foot distance.

Last year’s 9th place finisher at the boys Class A Minnesota State Track and Field Meet jumped 20-8 ¼ inches. Impressive by any measure.

Earlier this spring, Keefer, a senior at St. Michael-Albertville High School, accomplished something no other Minnesota girl has when she jumped 20-1 ¼ inches. She eclipsed the elusive 20-foot barrier.

It was a very big deal, but at the same time, the fact that most Minnesotans are probably completely unaware that it occurred at all is a sign of just how far girls and women have come. It’s no longer considered an oddity when something this special occurs. All those stereotypical physical barriers assigned to females have been happily dispelled as little more than fiction.

Of course it wasn’t that long ago when girls and women faced a much different battle. Everything has a genesis, and for modern-day girls’ sports it goes back 45 years to the inception of Title IX on June 23, 1972. As it relates to girls athletics, the groundbreaking federal legislation ensured they would be given the same opportunity as boys and would not be subject to discrimination. The year before Title IX was signed there were roughly 310,000 girls playing high school and college sports. Today, that number exceeds 3.3 million for high school participation alone. By contrast, there are 4.4 million boys participating in high school sports, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Girls’ participation rates have increased for 27 straight years.

Imagine all the growth and opportunity that would have been lost had Title IX never received federal support.

Yet for all the gains and improvements that have been made on behalf of girls and women, there are still some glaring shortcomings. For instance, even though female students outnumber male students 57 to 43 percent on college campuses (2014 data), male athletes are receiving 55 percent of the scholarship dollars, while women are getting 45 percent.

Even the women’s U.S. National Soccer Team that captured the 2015 World Cup title was served a piece of the “Title IX Doesn’t Reach This Far” pie when it took home $2 million for its efforts. The previous year’s men’s team winner from Germany was awarded $35 million. The U.S. men’s team, which finished 11th in 2014, was awarded $9 million.

Yes, you can argue that male sports are driving revenue, but to gain true balance those opportunities must equalize.

There is an option that women could pursue to bring wider attention to this issue, which would clearly go a step further than simply talking or writing about it. They could refuse to play.

Won’t work? Remember last season when a handful of Minnesota Lynx players wore T-shirts showing their support for Black Lives Matter or when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem to protest oppression against blacks or how about when the U.S. women’s hockey team threatened a boycott of the world championships to bring wider attention to pay inequities that exist between male and female hockey players? All of it may have seemed inappropriate because many of us believe players should just compete and leave politics out of our arenas, but it speaks volumes about a larger issue that each athlete was willing to risk sanctions or penalties for their actions.

Sometimes using a bigger stage is what it takes to finally get our attention.

For women, the stage has been much smaller and several blocks off Broadway, but as Keefer sailed through the air on her way to a 20-foot long jump, nobody could deny the powerful message that landed in the sand.

It’s been 45 years since we officially cracked open the door on discrimination and long-held stereotypes that prevented girls and women from reaching their full potential. But make no mistake—the door is open. And the result has been opportunity, growth and the realization of dreams fulfilled.

Keith Anderson is director of news for ECM Publishers