Girl Power?

How will the revolution in women's sports play out for the next generation?

It's the first really good Saturday in April but the fifth weekend that the girls of East Harlem Little League are assembling at a field on 112th Street to practice their softball fundamentals. Though the ground is still a little spongy

from the spring rain, the sun is bright and warm, and the 11 girls at today's practice, aged six to 10, are squealing happily as they run and stretch their pre-pubescent bodies. "It's just fun," says Iris Garcia, age eight, explaining why softball appeals to her. "It's better than staying home alone, all bored watching TV."

On the other side of a chain-link fence, teenage boys are already running baseball drills around a diamond. The girls, meanwhile, stand shoulder to shoulder on their patch of grass, making a semicircular wall of fielders as each takes a turn at bat. More often than not, the ball rolls past them.

Shanna Rodriguez gets set to swing like she's squashing a grapefruit.
Carla Gahr
Shanna Rodriguez gets set to swing like she's squashing a grapefruit.

But when Eboni Calloway, nine, comes up to the plate, she sends the ball soaring over their heads. Unlike the other girls, whose only vestiary accommodation to the day's activities has been to sweep their hair out of the way with butterfly barrettes, Calloway sports a blue Derek Jeter jersey and her hair is done up in careful rows of tight braids that won't come down right after practice. She's the only kid in the group who owns her own glove— a pint-size Wilson that she picked after hours of scrutiny at Modell's. Back in the field, she punches her fist against the leather and smiles at the sound of the thwack. "Good tight pocket," she says.

Calloway's parents— her mom works for a hospital, her dad for a car service— tell her she'd make a good lawyer, "because I always speak up for my rights." But she's already planning to join the WNBA. "This feels like myself, it feels like normal to me," she says, gesturing at the field. "I'm just born to be an athlete."

Feisty as one of the little girls giving pointers to the pros in the famed WNBA commercials, Calloway is part of the first generation of nine-year-olds that can dream with such certainty of an athletic future. Without a doubt, she's a product of the much ballyhooed revolution in women's sports. Softball is great, she allows between scooping ground balls, but "I just looooove basketball." She'll attend a basketball camp this summer and can look forward to junior high and high school team play, then maybe a scholarship to college and even a pro career— all unimaginable only an eye-blink ago.

But in the excitement over the tremendous explosion of opportunities, some early goals of the push for more female access have been swept aside. While there's no denying the advances made for elite athletes, what about the majority of girls? How much more access is there for kids who don't harbor hoop dreams but still need the physical and psychological benefits that sports bring to girls, as reams of research have shown? Has sports participation become normalized as part of girls' culture, making basic skills and the enjoyment of play as much of a birthright for girls as it has long been for boys? Has it widened girls' range of options for self-expression and gender identity, or has sports been co-opted by an ever more commercialized girls' culture, providing one more market niche and one more means of pushing conformity with an "ideal" body?

In the early, heady days of Title IX nearly 30 years ago, many pioneering female athletes saw the feminist potential of sports for women, not only in individual terms of building confidence and self-esteem, but in cultural terms as well. Sports was one of few arenas where women could resist traditional imperatives of femininity, according to which they were supposed to be weak, in perpetual need of male assistance, and above all, ornamental. Like a line drive buzzing past an infield, women's sports, they thought, might break open what they called in those days the capitalist patriarchy. Has that hoary old monster proved gluttonous enough to absorb the rush of girls onto soccer fields and basketball courts? How deep, in sum, has the revolution been?

Calloway's teammates, who love the unfettered feeling of romping outdoors but lack her passionate identification as an athlete, are not likely to stay in Little League once they sprout breasts. Several studies by sports sociologists show precipitous attrition rates among post-adolescent girls in sports. True, the number of girls involved in some kind of high school athletic activity leaped from one in 27 in 1971 to one in three nowadays, but that still leaves two-thirds of teenage girls sedentary.

Meanwhile, girls who don't seek out physical activity in special programs might never find it at all; physical education barely exists anymore. Daily PE is mandated for students in only one state (Illinois) and only about 25 percent of high schools offered daily PE in 1995, according to the Surgeon General's latest statistics. New York City schools fare even worse. Their PE budgets have been decimated, and New York had the lowest rate of sports participation of 15 cities studied last year by the Centers for Disease Control.

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