If You Let Me Play

By Eric Sharpe

If you are over the age of 35 you might remember what was considered a ground breaking commercial in 1995 by the Nike shoe company known as “If You Let Me Play.”  The commercial featured girls of all ages repeating those words, then citing quotes from a study done by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

“If you let me play… if you let me play sports,” they repeat, “I will like myself more. I will have more self-confidence. If you let me play sports…I will suffer less depression… I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me…If you let me play, I will learn what it means to be strong. If you let me play sports.”


For those under the age of 35, context needs to be established in understanding why this commercial was impactful, not only as a marketing tool for Nike, but as a statement of the importance of sports in the lives of girls.  It was not long ago that the only option for girls to participate in sports in school was as a cheerleader.  And though America has come a long way since those days, the struggle for gender equality in American sports, and society, continues. Though the 2015 Women’s World Cup Soccer final was the most watched soccer match in U.S. history, the U.S. Women’s National Team that won the cup earned $2 million for their efforts.  The year before, the 11th place men’s team earned $9 million.

The importance of sports in the lives of girls is rather amazing.  Beyond the intangibles – the impacts that are hard to measure which include greater self-esteem, confidence, and the development of leadership skills – the tangible measured truths of the benefits of sports in the lives of girls is not just amazing, they are somewhat heart breaking in considering the alternatives. A life without sports, or worse, without the opportunity to play sports, or without the encouragement to play sports by family, friends, teachers and the community, leaves potentially life-impacting gaps in the lives of girls.

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It holds true for the boys too, but many people do not understand that girls are still the underdog gender in American society.  They simply are not encouraged to succeed in the same way boys are. As a result, the benefits of playing sports for them become more glaring. Girls who do not play sports are 20% more likely to get breast cancer later in life.  A girl who doesn’t play sports is 41% less likely to graduate from college.  Without sports, a girl is 50% more likely to become pregnant before they plan to do so.

It is heart breaking to watch that commercial even today, (you can find it on YouTube – just search “If You Let Me Play”) as it still holds true in the data.  Heart breaking, yet emboldening, as one little girl in the commercial, sitting on a swing, proclaims with a confident resolve, that by playing sports, she will “be more likely to leave a man who beats me!” The benefits, both tangible and intangible, are immense.  Those facts should serve as a powerful driver for parents to allow – and encourage – their girls to play sports.

A Little History
It may seem a silly notion these days, but not long ago, girls were discouraged from playing sports. It was considered un-lady like.  It was feared sports might lead to aggressive behavior, or even “manliness”.

In 1971, 9 out of every 10 school aged athletes was a boy, despite the fact that there were (and are) roughly the same number of girls as there are boys in the U.S. population.  At the collegiate level, only 30,000 women were participating in collegiate sports that year, compared to 170,000 men.  It was obvious then that girls were not being encouraged to participate in sports and that there simply weren’t many options for girls to participate.  But something very cool happened –  the United States actually did something about it.

Title IX was passed in 1972 as part of legislation to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 legally establishing gender equality in schools by requiring equal access to sporting activities. The law essentially stated that if there was a roster position for a boy on a baseball team, there had to be an equivalent position on a girls’ team, like softball.  But if a girl wanted to play baseball instead… or football, or any sport, the school could not prevent it.

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The law made a huge difference.  From 1971 to 1980, physical activity in girls jumped by 24% and led to a significant decrease in childhood obesity. In 1973 alone, there was a 177% increase in female participation in sports and by 1995, 3 out of every 5 school aged athletes were girls/women (50.5% were boys; 39.5% were girls).

But despite the leap forward in sporting opportunities for girls, the gap between the two gender’s has little changed since 1995, begging the question:  parents may be letting their girls play, but are they actually encouraging them to do so… like they do their boys?  What about Montana’s girls?

Losing Ground
A new trend is chipping away at those gains as the overall participation in sports for all kids has been dropping in recent years.  According to an Aspen Institute Study, in 2011, 28.7% of all kids aged 6-12 participated in “high calorie burning” sports (running, soccer, basketball).  In 2016, that percentage was down to 24.8%.  Though a 3.9% drop may seem small, that percentage translates to over 100,000 fewer kids playing high activity sports from 2011 to 2016.

When all sports are considered (including golf/baseball/softball), the declines are even more dramatic, especially in team sports.  In 2008, 45% of all kids aged 6-12 played on a team.  In 2016, it was 36.9%  – an 18% drop.

The good news for Montana is that the gender gap in Montana sports participation is much smaller than 43 other states as Montana ranked 7th in “least width” of the gap. Of all boys aged 5-17 in Montana, 20.7% participate in sports while 17.4% of all girls are playing sports – a gap of only 3.3% compared to the national gap of 11%.  The gap is far larger in the South with some states seeing girls participating as much as 50% less than the boys.

But overall, Montana’s kid’s participation in sports has been on the decline.  Though both boys and girls participation has been on the slide since at least 2008, that decrease for girls from 2008 to 2014 (most recent data) is about 2.3%.  The number of Montana boys on the other hand who are participating in sports (ages 5-17) has dropped almost 7% during the same time.  Worse, the level of participation for kids in sports in Montana was low to begin with compared to the national average.  The percentage of high school girls who participate in sports (nationwide average) is 42% compared to Montana’s 17.2%.

What is happening in Montana?
As to why girls (and boys) in Montana participate in sports at a much lower rate than the national average is a matter of speculation, but the consensus is that a lot of those kids live in rural areas (65%) where small schools just don’t have the same resources to offer sports as their big city counterparts.

There are a multitude of thoughts as to why the general decline (for boys and girls) in participation is happening: rising costs for equipment, more social opportunities outside of organized sports, cuts in physical education programs, and increased parent concerns over sports injuries.  All that may be involved in the decline in Montana’s kids participation, but a theory unique to states like Montana is that long bus rides kids face just to compete have finally taken its toll.  According to a Great Falls Tribune article, some Glasgow High School teams can log 3,782 miles a year on a bus. That’s about 60 hours of bus time.

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The downward trend?
But Montana’s numbers may simply be reflective of the generation of kids now in school.  In general, Millennials weren’t, and now the so-called Centennials (the newest generation aged 0 to 16) aren’t, as interested in sports across the board.  This may by a symptom of the cyber-paced world in which they live where instant gratification supersedes building a skill that has to be worked hard for.  Sports requires hard work, and sweat. So, maybe it’s not about opportunity or encouragement as much as it is simple growing disinterest.

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Really, what can a parent do if their child is genuinely not interested in playing sports?  Certainly, a parent should never force the issue.  The key though perhaps is to start them as young as possible by “playing sports” as a family in the backyard, watching sports on TV (or better yet, in person), and by generally providing an atmosphere in which sports is part of a way of life.  That may seem obtuse to some readers, which is also another potential driver impacting less youth participation in sports.  The concept of competition has received a very bad rap in recent decades to the point that it is almost seen as obscene.  Competing to be the best, or at least to be better than your opponent has come to mean “winners and losers” to society.  Angry overbearing parents shouting at games and stories of kids pressured beyond limits to be aggressive and win began to taint the concept of youth sports at the turn of the century.

Though such bad behavior was more the exception to the rule than the norm, the perception that competition was toxic led to a “watering-down” of it through the “everyone gets a trophy mentality.”  That same trend, where some organized youth sports don’t have a champion declared at the end of the season (because they don’t keep score during the games), has had a detrimental effect on sports.  Kids don’t just want to compete, they want a benchmark against which they can measure their efforts.

Being Aggressive
Some argue that it’s not so-much sports that are important to girls as it is simple participation in an organized club or group activity which leads to benefits similar to sports.  But as much as such non-athletic clubs have the benefits of promoting certain skills, such activities really don’t compare to sports.

Sports for a girl requires the development of “aggressive” skills that can only be developed in a rigorous athletic activity.  Pushing the body beyond what they once felt was its capacity to perform, seeking victory against an opponent, and seeking to master difficult physical skills gives something to girls that is essential in their lives – the ability to stand up for themselves with confident resolve and face hardships that boys do not face.  It can give them a sense of strength that is not typically encouraged in girls.  Girls are still bombarded with the message that women are passive, weak, and not influential.  Girls are not supposed to be aggressive or competitive.  Girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.”

The term “aggressive” should not be misinterpreted here either. Aggressive is not the same as being mean, or tough, or manly.  Aggressive is being outgoing, strong, and steadfast in resolve in the face of another’s aggressive behavior.  That is why a girl who plays sports is “more likely to leave a man who beats her!”  That is why women who played sports as kids are more likely to be promoted to executive leadership positions. That sense of “being able” is developed in sports and is why they are more likely to pursue a meaningful career as an adult.  That experience is what helps bring their families closer together in support, and thus makes those little girls more likely to have closer relationships with their children (if they choose to have them). That confidence developed on the tough road of practice and competition is what will help her learn “what it means to be strong.”  But only if you encourage, nurture, and let them play. And for Dad’s: A later variation on the Nike commercial offers some good advice. “If you’re taking Billy out to play catch, take Amy out, too.”

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