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Gender Gap Grows in High School Sports, Report Says

High school boys and girls both made gains in the number of athletic opportunities made available to them over this past decade, but boys saw a larger share of those gains, according to a new report by the Sport, Healthy, Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls (SHARP Center).

"The Decade of Decline: Gender Equity in High School Sports" uses data from both the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights (OCR) and the National Center on Education Statistics to determine how high school girls' athletic opportunities compared with boys' from the 1999-2000 school year through the 2009-10 school year.

Given this past summer's 40th anniversary of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in any federally financed education program or activity, the timing of the report couldn't be much more perfect.

As you might expect, there's both good news and bad news to be taken from it.

On the bright side, athletic opportunities expanded for high-school-aged females over that time span. Schools went from offering 32 athletic opportunities per 100 girls in the 1999-2000 school year to offering 41 athletic opportunities per 100 girls in the 2009-10 school year, the report found.

On the other hand, boys' athletic opportunities only expanded further. Schools offered 43 athletic opportunities for every 100 boys in the 1999-2000 school year, and that number rose to 53 athletic opportunities per 100 boys by the 2009-10 school year.

By 2009-10, boys still received disproportionately more athletic opportunities than girls in all community settings—urban, suburban, town, and rural communities—according to the report. All community settings increased the number of athletic opportunities over the course of the decade, though.

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Data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) only supports the report's assertions. According to the organization's High School Athletics Participation Survey, a total of 3,861,749 boys and 2,673,874 girls participated in high school sports in the 1999-2000 school year, while those numbers increased to 4,455,740 boys and 3,172,637 girls by 2009-10.

Over that 10-year span, an additional 593,991 boys began playing high school sports, while females trailed by roughly 100,000, with only 496,763 more females participating.

It's worth noting, however, that according to the NFHS' most recent High School Athletics Participation Survey, boys' participation figures in the 2011-12 school year actually fell for the first time in two decades, while the girls' rate continued to rise. Still, even with the 2011-12 drop, roughly 90,000 more boys have started taking part in high school sports since the 1999-2000 school year than girls, according to the NFHS data.

"In the wake of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, the state of women's sports in the U.S. has generated great praise, and many believe that girls and women have finally achieved athletic equality," said Kathryn Olson, the chief executive officer of the Women's Sports Foundation, in a statement. "However, these findings suggest that we simply aren't there yet. In fact, we are moving farther and farther away from equality with the cutting of interscholastic sports."

One more gender-related note before moving on: The report found "absolutely no evidence that boys somehow lost athletic opportunities as a result of girls' gains in sport." Boys' access to athletic opportunities expanded more in all settings besides urban communities, where the gender gap between boys and girls remained equivalent over the 10-year time period, according to the report.

The American Sports Council (ASC), a group seeking to remove the Title IX three-prong compliance test from high schools, posted a blog Wednesday calling the SHARP Center's report the "same old activist bunk." The ASC claims that the SHARP Center used questionable statistics and analytical measures when creating the report, and that the report draws on the "lucrative cottage industry of Title IX consultants" without providing the other side.

Decline in All High School Sports?

The gender-gap findings lead the report, but perhaps the more alarming findings come when looking at the overall decline of high school sports since the 1999-2000 school year.

Only 8.2 percent of schools offered no sports programs during the 1999-2000 school year, but that percentage nearly doubled within a decade, rising to 15 percent of schools not offering sports by 2009-10.

Schools with fewer resources or disproportionately higher female populations (with females comprising at least 55 percent of the student body) were more likely to drop sports during that time frame, the report found.

Also, a far higher number of high schools dropped sports between the 1999-2000 and 2009-10 school years than the number of schools that added sports during that time. Overall, 541 high schools lost certain sports programs (7 percent of the 7,254 public high schools examined in the report) in the 10-year span, while only 42 (less than 1 percent) added sports.

Eight percent of the 7,254 schools, or 556 overall, had never offered sports from 1999-2000 through 2009-10, according to the report.

Based on this trend, the report estimates that 27 percent of U.S. public high schools (4,398 schools overall) will not offer any form of interscholastic sports by 2020, which would leave 3.4 million high schoolers (1,658,046 girls and 1,798,782 boys) without any form of school-based sports opportunities. Given the growing body of research linking physical activity to improved academic performance, a reduction in school-based sports might not only have implications for the U.S.' youth-obesity crisis.

Addressing the Gender Gap

The SHARP Center report concludes with the following suggestions to help address the growing imbalance in athletic opportunities between high school males and females:

• Strengthen OCR's enforcement of Title IX in high schools;

• Have federal policymakers require high schools to publicly reveal the gender breakdown for their athletic programs, which the 1994 Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act requires colleges to do;

• Encourage urban schools to place an emphasis on expanding athletic opportunities for females, given that such schools provided the lowest percentage of athletic opportunities to girls;

• And ensure that all schools have a Title IX coordinator on site, who's regularly running Title IX self-evaluations to ensure compliance with the law.

The report also calls for additional research into what's behind the rise in schools dropping athletic opportunities altogether.

Lone Oak's Hannah Parker jumps in the air to bump the ball during a volleyball game against Jackson High on Oct. 2 at Lone Oak's gymnasium in Lone Oak, Ky. (Allie Douglass /The Paducah Sun/AP)

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