Saturday, June 20, 2009

Are rural girls more interested in sports than their urban counterparts?

That is the implicit suggestion of a couple of articles in the New York Times earlier this week. The headlines are, "A City Team's Struggle Shows Disparity in Girls' Sports" and "Using Teamwork to Bring Girls into the Game." Both are by Katie Thomas.

As someone who thinks a lot about rurality and rural-urban difference, I was struck by the fact that this two-part series was explicitly labeled "urban" and "city" at different points, including in one of the headlines. While one might argue that this evinces an urban bias in reporting (i.e., more urban news, features are published than those about rural places), at least there is a certain fairness or accuracy in labeling in the sense that the story doesn't purport to be universal, while actually being urban focused. It is what it says it is--a two-part series about the struggle to engage girls in sports in urban settings. As such, it may also use these modifiers to differentiate the places featured not only from the rural, but also from the suburban.

Here's a representative excerpt about the story:
MetroLacrosse, which serves 600 children, is one of several Boston sports groups that are aggressively trying to increase girls’ participation. The city is at the vanguard of a movement to close the gender gap in urban areas by rethinking traditional activities and looking for new ways to encourage girls to play.
Whether the "urban" modifier is intended to differentiate from rural, suburban or both, these two stories got me to thinking some more about my own rural upbringing and the role of sports for girls in that setting. I've often whined that, as a not-very-athletic girl (and indeed, a rather bookish one), I was sorta' "second class" in my rural junior high and high school. Even though I went on to be a cheerleader (feminist legal theory students and alums are gasping, I assume, at this revelation), we cheerleaders knew we occupied a lower rung on the social ladder than the female athletes. In the tiny school from which I graduated, those athletes were all basketball players--the only inter-school sport for grades 7-12 at that time.

So, in my experience, rural "girls" were quite interested in sports (and in some ways rewarded for that interest)--much more, apparently, than the urban girls in the northeast who are the focus of Thomas' reports. Why might that be? Is it that being raised in the country--sometimes on a farm, doing farm chores--makes girls more comfortable with physical activity? Many rural and small-town schools are characterized by a dearth of extracurricular and after-school programs in rural places, as well as long school bus rides home. Maybe it is because there is so little else for rural teens to do--whether in or out of school-- that sports are a more attractive diversion for girls as well as boys.

Of course, just because rural girls are interested in sports doesn't mean they attract as much attention as boys for participating, or even excelling. Townsfolk in my community always followed boys teams more closely than girls teams. Indeed, only in about 1980 did girls basketball teams go from playing 3-on-3 half court to playing full-court 5-on-5. And that took litigation.

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