Many folks probably missed Wednesday's headlines proclaiming the Texas A&M Lady Aggies the 2011 NCAA women's basketball champions. It's nothing new, but I am still amazed that girls' and women's sports don't receive the recognition they deserve. It's time the black community rallied to change that. More important than championship trophies, there is a long-lasting, positive effect that organized sports can have on young girls, especially black girls.
For as long as I can remember, I was doing cartwheels and backflips around my house and neighborhood. When I removed the top mattress from my bunk bed and turned the bed into a poor man's uneven bars — as seen in women's gymnastic competitions — my mom had had enough. She enrolled me in gymnastics classes. I was in the third grade.
A few years later, I was on a competitive gymnastics team. I was one of two black girls on a team of about 40. Playing kick ball in my all-black neighborhood was nothing like this. We would spend hours a day practicing and conditioning, which consisted of repetitive exercises to increase strength, flexibility and endurance. All of that was to prepare for competitions at places I had never been. I went on to compete on my high school gymnastics and cheerleading teams.
I'm convinced that those sports experiences played a key role in who I am today. Sports teaches children how to follow rules, work as a team and engage in healthy competition. For girls, the benefits are greater — increased self-esteem and confidence, a better body image and an improved academic performance. In fact, studies show a decrease in high school dropouts among girls who play sports, as well as a lower likelihood of smoking or becoming pregnant.
Unfortunately, black girls are significantly less active in sports than their white counterparts. As you might have guessed, barriers include limited access, costs and peer pressure. Roxanne Jones, a vice president at ESPN who grew up running track and cheerleading, told The Root that needs to change.
"All of the images [of black women that young black girls] get in the media, mostly entertainers, become a burden," she said. "Looking good and being famous becomes more important than more important goals like being good students."
Jones is the author of Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete. The book features track-and-field legend Wilma Rudolph, basketball great Lusia Harris-Stewart and golf champion Ann Gregory.
"Most of them didn't have the greatest self-esteem at first," she said of the legends in her book. "But through sports, they felt special. That made them leaders, and then a stronger sense of self-esteem came out."
Jones also features Venus and Serena Williams in her book. She says that young girls admire the glamorous side of the sisters and often miss the rest of the story.
"Venus and Serena didn't get to Wimbledon because they were lucky. Before these girls were on magazine covers, there were years and years of practice and hard work. That hard work continues today because they are still competing."
It's hard to miss the confidence exuded in the photographs of the women in Say It Loud. And as you read about these women, such as tennis powerhouse Althea Gibson, you understand why.
"These women were not afraid to be different," Jones said. "Instead of giving in to peer pressure, these women embraced what was different and unique about themselves."
The goal is not for black girls to become professional athletes or NCAA champions, although that would be wonderful. The point is giving these girls a better chance at success and happiness. Sports won't solve every problem for every black girl, but it could definitely give them the edge that so many of them desperately need.