Hughes blog: NGWSD takes over Washington, D.C.

Conference promotes equality in scholastic sports

Sarah Hughes poses with her hometown representative, Carolyn McCarthy of New York.
Sarah Hughes poses with her hometown representative, Carolyn McCarthy of New York. (courtesy of Sarah Hughes)


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By Sarah Hughes, special to
(02/07/2012) - What a day!

Not only did I get to run around Capitol Hill, but I got a taste of how much work it takes to achieve even a sliver of political change and just how much progress the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF) has made over the past 38 years. On Feb. 1, the strides of this organization were evident.

The National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) began in 1987 as a way to recognize current sport triumphs and the multitude of benefits that sports participation gives young people, celebrate Title IX and remind our lawmakers of the importance of continuing the expansion of opportunities for girls to play sports in school.

I went as a delegate for the WSF, but there were four other partners in organizing the NGWSD Capital Hill visit: Girl Scouts of the USA, Girls Incorporated, the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports (NAGWS) and the National Women's Law Center.

These five powerhouses work together on the sole mission of equality, an issue on which I feel strongly. On dinner Tuesday, as a prelude and preparation to the busy day Wednesday, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the senior director of advocacy for the WSF, filled me in on some of the legal work she has been doing lately on behalf of the WSF. She told us about Parker v. Franklin County Community School Corporation, an important Title IX case that she just helped win. The suit demonstrated that the majority of the high school boys' games were played on Friday and Saturday evenings, which are considered prime time, while the girls' games were mostly played on weekday nights. The problem with this is that the time constraints of playing and traveling during the week places an unfair academic burden on the girls in addition to receiving a lack of support from their classmates in the bleachers -- since they are likely doing their homework during that time.

Hogshead-Makar went on to explain that in this particular case, the girls' season began two weeks before that of the boys. In those two weeks, the girls played only on Friday and Saturday nights. Once the boys' season started, 95 percent of the boys' games were on primetime nights while only 53 percent of the girls' games fell on those nights. The courts ruled this was a violation of Title IX. But the main issue with the case, Hogshead-Makar believes, is that cases like this should not have to go to court. Taxpayer money should not have to be spent deciding such matters. Issues such as these, she said, should be able to be worked out within the school districts in the ordinary course of administering these sports.

Anyway, we didn't go to D.C. to fight legal battles this week -- we were there to celebrate women in sports. Every year, the WSF chooses one issue to focus on during the visit. This year the focus was on gaining support for a bill requiring more transparency in the number of kids participating in high school athletics, a practice that is already in place in all college athletics, in all states. The bill would require high schools to make public the basic data on the numbers of female and male students and athletes, as well as expenditures made for each sports team on travel, equipment, facilities and publicity. Since schools already collect the information requested, it would only take an administrative assistant 2-8 hours a year to compile this information. Georgia, Kentucky and New Mexico have already enacted similar state bills, making our job this year a little easier.

Why is this transparency important? Because putting this data out there keeps schools publicly accountable in ensuring that the athletic opportunities for girls and boys are fair.

Winter X Games superstar Grete Eliassen came to D.C. from her home in Salt Lake City for the third year in a row to celebrate NGWSD. She arrived tending to an ACL injury, complete with crutches and a wheelchair. Despite her condition, her enthusiasm never waned, and she offered much advice and cheerfulness throughout the two days, both of which were helpful in guiding me through meetings with senators and congressmen.

Our NGWSD group started Wednesday with an early briefing in the Women's Law Center before we split into groups. Our six groups met with 36 different senators and congressmen. My group included one woman from the Women's Law Center, one from the NAGWS, the senior director of athlete services from the WSF and, for the morning meetings, a Nike representative who proudly stated, "Nike has always been passionate in the fight for equality."

In the middle of the day, we (the NGWSD) held a briefing in Rayburn, the building where the representatives have their offices.

The room quickly filled, and Cornell McClellan, the personal trainer to the First Family, started the briefing off with a bang: He instructed everybody to get up and start moving around! Knee lifts, squats, side bends, the works!

Why start with getting us all moving?

"Studies have found that exercising before school helps kids remember." So, he added, "You'll now remember what I say."

He turned serious when he later explained that one state was actively testing this theory. Whichever subject kids were having trouble with, the school would change their schedules so they would take physical education before that specific class. Their scores consistently improved with this method in place.

"Being active isn't something you do when you find the time," Mr. McClellan said.

Our bodies were designed to move, and the only way to stay healthy is to keep them moving. The Obamas, he said, are not merely talking the talk. They are "walking, running and skipping the walk." While I'm sure half the women in the room were wondering what the secret to attaining Michelle Obama's arms is, he simply shared that "she's a dynamo when it comes to fitness and being active."

The most moving part of the briefing came from Veronic Hanc, an eighth-grade basketball player from the Bronx. Half Puerto Rican, half Czech, she bravely faced a room full of adults to share her story. She moved from a school where there were only boys' teams to a school where there was a girl's basketball team. At her old school, she would play with the boys.

"Why are you playing basketball?" other girls would ask her. "Why aren't you shopping?"

In her new school, she gets to play on a team with other girls. They don't always win, but she learned it's not about that.

"It's about trying your best and giving it everything you got," she said.

Most importantly, basketball helps her deal with a difficult personal life. Tears started forming in my eyes as she spoke. Coach Destiny, who accompanied and filmed her as she spoke, began tearing up, too. Sometimes Veronica plays because she loves it, but sometimes she plays because she doesn't want to go home. When she hears the bounce of the ball and the swoosh of the hoops, she said she knows she will leave better equipped for any difficult things ahead of her.

The opportunity a girl's basketball team and coach Destiny are affording young Veronica is something that more girls should be able to benefit from, said Betsey Stevenson, a visiting assistant professor of economics at Princeton. The physical activity and support from the team give her more than just basketball skills.

"The places where girls have the biggest gaps in math," Stevenson said, "Are the same places that have the biggest gaps in girls participating in sports."

The correlations proved consistent in other areas, too, such as continuing on to higher education, attaining top jobs and overall career earnings. The girls who played sports when they were younger thrived in those three areas, while girls who didn't have the opportunity to play sports were more at-risk for dropping out of school, engaging in risky behavior and being more prone to diseases.

Eliassen said her mission was building what others before her have started.

"Making an impact beyond my sport is what it's all about. Sports have always been easy to me," she said.

Introduced to the WSF through Sarah Burke, her dear friend who just passed away, Eliassen looks to expand on Burke's work with the WSF, most notably the passage of her (and Burke's) discipline in the 2014 Olympics: the freestyle slopestyle event. I hope you all cheer on Grete in her ACL recovery and training for the 2014 Games.

I can go on and on about my day on the Hill and the work of these organizations, but the highlights had to be the one-on-one meetings with the representatives and senators. The feeling that I was actually making a difference, albeit one still in the initial stages, is a very powerful one. I am proud to say my hometown representative, Carolyn McCarthy, agreed to co-sponsor the bill. Actually, all six offices I met with agreed to co-sponsor the bill, which would perhaps be more impressive if the bill was even a little bit controversial.

But it's not. It is simply extending an administrative task that is already required of universities to high schools. Unfortunately, the same can often be said of equality.