When I worked with Mo’ne Davis to write her new book, Mo’ne Davis: Remember My Name: My Story From First Pitch to Game Changer, I met a 13-year-old who epitomizes the benefits of girls’ involvement in sports.
Of course, I already knew about Mo’ne’s women’s-history-making Little League pitching performances, when she struck out scores of boys and gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “You throw like a girl.” But it wasn’t until I started working with her that I began to learn about her grit and resilience off the field (she’s an honor roll student) that she carries with the same comfort with which she wears her baseball glove.
And I saw how much she embodies the growth mindset, the understanding that working hard and engaging in difficult tasks (think: rigorous academics, playing up an age group in sports and competing against older boys and men) make you smarter and more capable. (Just ask Kevin Hart.) She also has close relationships with girls at school and on her basketball and soccer teams in an era when same-gender friendships sometimes seem tenuous.
Indeed, sports have not only protected this low-income girl. They’ve also totally transformed her life.
Studies have shown that girls who play sports are healthier for the short term and long run; they have lower rates of obesity well into their 30s and 40s. They are much likelier to graduate high school and score better on standardized tests, no matter their socioeconomic level, and less likely to smoke cigarettes or use drugs. Black adolescent girls who are athletes are less than half as likely to have unplanned pregnancies.
Female business executives who were formerly athletes believe that sports improves their leadership potential and makes it easier for them to find a job. More than half of the female chief executive officers, chief financial officers and chief information officers surveyed in a recent global research study used to play sports.
And Mo’ne is experiencing the pinnacle of sports’ benefits that most black girls are missing out on. Fewer than one-third of black girls and Latinas play sports, compared with three-fourths of white girls. The drop-off in their physical activity is precipitous: One study showed that black girls demonstrate a 100 percent decline in such activities between kindergarten and high school.
“By high school, black girls were doing no physical activity at all, versus a 50 percent decline among white girls,” exercise-science expert and epidemiologist Melicia Whitt-Glover has previously explained.
There are many reasons for this difference, and as their village, we must fight them.
In 2010 the National Women’s Law Center filed suit against 12 cities—including New York, Chicago and Houston—for denying girls the right to play ball. And just in February, the U.S. Department of Education found that New York City had failed to provide girls the same opportunities to play sports as boys.
Fortunately, groups like Black Girls Run, Black Women Do Workout and GirlTrek are encouraging African-American girls and women—who have historically preferred rest over exercise during their downtime—to learn to enjoy physical activity. But we must advocate for safe and attractive places to exercise in our communities.
We must also oppose rigid gender roles that have led to some girls being engaged in child care and household tasks while their brothers play video games and ball, as well as challenge the idea that sports are not feminine that exists in too many communities of color.
And let’s not overlook the concerns many of us have about sweating out our hair or worrying about makeup or how we will appear to boys and men. Mo’ne works with her hairdresser to identify chemical-free styles that support her heavy workout schedule. But she says that a girl’s character is more important than her appearance: Mo’ne is free from the insecurity about looks that has many grown women stuck.
Back in my day, I was no Mo’ne Davis. But as an early beneficiary of Title IX—the law that bars sexual discrimination in schools—I experienced adolescence feeling confident and loving my body’s appearance, strength and performance long before any “mean girls” or boys had either noticed me or chipped away at my self-esteem.
At a time when black girls’ lives and looks are under assault, our daughters deserve no less than to grow up with the same life-affirming benefits that sports have provided our sons and that have propelled Mo’ne into the stratosphere. If her example encourages other black girls and women to get in the game, that could be her greatest accomplishment of all.
Mo’ne’s first book signing will take place at the Barnes & Noble store at 1805 Walnut St. in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 21, at 2 p.m.
Philadelphia-based writer Hilary Beard is co-author of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life and Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, both of which have won an NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.