Playing a team sport is a coming-of-age ritual for many children. But not too long ago, the familiar routine of Friday night games and Saturday morning practices was reserved for boys.
This year marks 45 years since Title IX passed, the legislation prohibiting gender discrimination in education programs receiving federal dollars. Although Title IX is not exclusively for athletics, it has come to represent equal opportunity in sports since its 1972 passage. For elementary and high schools, Title IX primarily requires equity in participation opportunities and fair treatment. For colleges, the law has more complex repercussions, prohibiting discrimination in financial aid, recruitment and coaching staff, among other factors.
In the decades since it passed, the ability of young women to play the sport they love while pursuing a higher education has “ignited,” as Pipeline Soccer Club founder Sean Rush says.
Although the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, initially expressed opposition to Title IX, the organization’s approach to women’s sports rapidly shifted. By the 1980s, the NCAA became the primary association of nascent women’s college athletics. Now it is common to see girls signing letters of intent at National Signing Day events and college women playing varsity sports from ice hockey to tennis. With a net increase of 3,434 women’s teams across all NCAA divisions since 1988, opportunity has skyrocketed.
But this increase didn’t begin at the college level. Since Title IX was passed, girls’ participation in high school sports has increased by over 1000 percent, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Rush, who founded his Baltimore-area club in 2011, built Pipeline’s success on this dynamic. He says when founding Pipeline the club was advised to focus on girls’ soccer—a sport that has grown by 37 percent in the past 20 years, according to U.S. Youth Soccer. That piece of advice turned out to be a driving force in Pipeline’s growth, which had four girls’ teams win state championships this past season.
Sue Thompson has been involved with girls’ sports as an athlete, coach and now executive director of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland (IAAM), since the 1970s. The IAAM, the league for girls’ high school sports at independent schools in the Baltimore area, formed in 1999 with nine sports. It now offers 14. “[Women’s athletics] has certainly evolved and increased by leaps and bounds,” Thompson says.
In lacrosse-crazed Maryland, top-ranked Division I women’s programs like Johns Hopkins, Towson, Loyola and the 2017-championship-winning University of Maryland increase the visibility of female college athletes. “The amount of opportunity that was out there and still continues to grow for these young women is phenomenal,” Janine Tucker, head coach of Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse, says.
Now in her 25th year with the Blue Jays, Tucker guided the program from Division III to Division I during one of the most rapid periods of change in the sport’s history. Since Tucker began at Hopkins, the number of scholarships for women to play in college has “increased tremendously.”
In 1993, the NCAA’s Gender Equity Task Force reported that 70 percent of scholarships went to men. Today, 51 percent of Division I scholarships go to men and 45 percent to women, with some funds remaining for coed sports or unallocated. While this isn’t even, it is far more than it used to be. And with more teams, more scholarships and a larger potential recruiting pool, more girls aspire to play sports in college.
“If [athletes] put their minds to it, this could lead to pretty awesome opportunities to help pay for their college or get into a phenomenal school of their choice,” Tucker says.
But with these developments, the recruitment process is more complex, competitive and at times, overwhelming. “I’ve seen good experiences and I’ve seen bad,” Thompson says. “It’s a truly broad, daunting experience.”
Wilbur Schneidereith, father to Jamie, Lucy, Maggie and Georgia Schneidereith, quadruplets who made headlines last year when all four committed to play Division I lacrosse, knows just how daunting recruitment can be. Schneidereith’s daughters were in middle school when they began to consider college play. The first of his daughters to be contacted by a coach was in her freshman year of high school. “My wife and I didn’t know what we were looking at, much less my kids,” when the process began, he says.
While recruitment was hectic, Schneidereith acknowledges his daughters might not be able to attend the colleges they do if it wasn’t for lacrosse. Without the academic and athletic scholarships they received from their respective universities, the bill for all four would be hefty.
But behind the competitive recruitment scene where girls vie for offers to the most elite college programs are coaches, parents and mentors who believe in the benefits sports have beyond a ticket to your dream school. “It’s really more about mentoring young women to us than it is about winning the national championship,” Schneidereith says.
Tucker echoes this sentiment. “Playing sports does equal opportunity for these young women, no matter what sport it is,” she says. “As a mom myself, that’s what I want for my son and for my Hopkins girls. I want them to have multiple opportunities.”