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Black Girls Need Sports — Access At Youth Level Crucial For Professional Development

This op-ed originally published in Sports Business Journal on October 19, 2020. 

By Monica McNutt

I thought I escaped these numbers.

I didn’t. I wouldn’t change my path and the opportunities basketball has given me for the world. The game has shaped how I define hard work, gave me confidence far beyond the court, and elevated my voice.

But I’m still a stereotype — a Black girl who played ball. Sixty-eight percent of Black girls who play sports are basketball players or track and field athletes.

I’m not sad about that. I love the game and I’m proud of everything that I’ve accomplished in it, but I want access. I want Black girls to have the same opportunities that white girls have. 

According to a Women’s Sports Foundation Race and Sport report, Black female athletes account for 26.2% of the female athlete student population but receive just 17.5% of the scholarships. White female athletes make up 68.5% of the female athlete population and account for 75% of the scholarships.

Statistically, Black girls are more likely to have other responsibilities that pull them away from sports or attend schools with less access. According to a Chasing Equity report by WSF, only 7% of Black girls play in private sports organizations compared to 21% of white girls.

In this regard, I did escape the statistics. Growing up in a two-parent household and commuting 45 minutes to attend my predominantly white, all-girls Catholic high school where I played ball makes me an exception. 

My team represented a large part of the Black population of our high school. We all had different stories, but were fortunate to have parents and families who made sacrifices and saw the value in the opportunity our high school gave us.

Sports are a microcosm of life.

“Girls of color continue to be underserved and overlooked,” Billie Jean King said.

Sports are a microcosm of life.

In 1962, civil rights leader Malcolm X said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” While the quote has become a common rallying cry, the painful reality is that it’s still true.

Sports are a microcosm of life.

The disparities in sports for Black girls mirror the disparities in opportunity and the lack of respect for Black girls and women in American culture.

Think about the marketing surrounding the U.S. women’s national soccer team and the USA Basketball women’s national team. The basketball team, which consists of seven Black women and five white women, has won six straight gold medals, including gold in the 2016 Olympics. Their gold-medal win streak has never been matched by any other women’s team sport, and a seventh gold medal will tie the men’s streak from 1936 to 1968.

The women’s soccer team has won four Olympic gold medals and four FIFA Women’s World Cups, including the 2019 title in France. That team consists of 20 white women and two Black women.

Which of these juggernauts do you see marketed more? Which athletes have you seen in commercials? Can you even name anyone on the U.S. women’s basketball team?

“There are a lot of people who focus on the small things, and there are people who focus on the systemic things. I think the small things inform the systemic things, so the small things inform culture, they inform how we’re socialized, they inform what we believe to be normal,” said Nnenna Akotaobi, executive director of the Black Women in Sports Foundation.

The difference in the experience of sports for Black and white women is undoubtedly informed by systemic bias, which is the eloquent way to say racism.

Sports are praised for instilling confidence in women, from high-powered executives to coaches, teachers and moms. We know the power of sports in shaping how a woman sees herself and her power. According to Fortune, 94% of female C-level executives played sports. If we want to open the door to the boardroom, we need to open the gate to the field.

The statistics and the reality give me a headache and beg the question: What can be done?

Black girls need sports.

Changes need to be made at the youth level in order to affect the path of future women leaders. We also need to think of sports as one of the most important building blocks for a successful life and find a way to provide equitable access to those fields and courts.

Sometimes, I think about the lacrosse coach at my high school who diligently recruited me to play. While she probably wasn’t doing that as an attempt to close the gap in opportunities for Black girls in sport, she didn’t stick to the status quo. She went after and welcomed someone who didn’t look like her.

I wonder what could’ve been if I’d accepted her invitation and chosen lacrosse over basketball. Not just for me, but also for my potential white teammates. 

Access for Black girls won’t just benefit Black girls. It will benefit all girls. 

Monica McNutt is a veteran broadcaster who hosts a new video series called ONYX: Celebrating Black Women and Girls in Sports for women’s sports media platform GoodSport.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, photo courtesy of Monica McNutt

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