Despite a minor nationwide decrease in high school athletics participation, girls’ high school sports participation has remained strong.
According to a Sept. 5 report from the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are 43,395 fewer students participating in high school sports in the United States. This is the first time that number has dropped since 1988-89.
If you asked Wisconsin officials, however, there is no issue with losing participants in their sports. Take Wisconsin Dells girls golf coach Seth Neilsen, who presides over the second-ranked team in WIAA’s second division.
“When I took over, we had five girls out,” Neilsen said. “Now we have upwards of 14 and have started a middle school girls golf program as well.”
Neilsen, who is now in his fourth year as head coach in the Dells, previously worked as the boys’ golf coach in New Holstein. New Holstein does not have a girls’ program, but Neilsen has not seen differing levels of support from the administrations he has worked for across boys and girls golf.
“Both districts have been very involved and very supportive, and the Dells has been just as involved and just as supportive,” Neilsen said. “Not a lot of differences in the level of support.”
It was unlikely Neilsen could say the same 50 years ago. In June 1972, the US government enacted Title IX, which declares that no educational institution receiving federal funds can deny any person from participating in a given program “on the basis of sex.” Title IX is a smaller part of the larger Education Amendments of 1972, but what most people know Title IX for in modern day is for enforcing equality in high school and collegiate athletics.
As written, Title IX is brief, but its implications are far-reaching and have a major impact on athletics. According to the NCAA, any institution offering scholarship athletics must “Provide participation opportunities for women and men that are substantially proportionate to their respective rates of enrollment of full-time undergraduate students.”
This isn’t restricted to college athletics. High schools are held to the same standard, and it’s a standard Wisconsin high schools take seriously. Take Sauk Prairie athletic director Joshua Boyer, who helped organize a seminar specifically to help his district’s female athletes.
“This fall, we had a female athlete empowerment symposium,” Boyer said. “We provided some tools and learning opportunities for female athletes, dealing with the challenges in today’s society, and also helping them learn through the challenges of today’s athletics”
Jenna Halvorson, a graduated star track athlete at UW-La Crosse led the symposium, which focused primarily on handling adversity, setting goals and managing nutrition for young female athletes.
“A lot of information to help our female athletes process and deal with societal challenges, team dynamics,” Boyer said. “It was an opportunity for a learning session to bring knowledge and experience from people in the profession... to help get them tools and ideas to help them participate and go through their teenage years as female athletes.”
Boyer feels that regardless of sport and regardless of gender, Sauk Prairie goes to great lengths to make sure their athletes are promoted and represented equally.
Reedsburg girls tennis coach Rachel Eigner feels much the same about her program. Although according to her, Reedsburg tennis doesn’t have the same top-flight talent to compete with some of the top-tier programs in the Badger North Conference, that doesn’t mean the athletic department treats them as a lesser sport.
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“We do have support from the school and from our AD in terms of funding,” Eigner said. “We just ordered tennis jackets… there is support there and anything we need, tennis balls, nets, that’s there.”
While Eigner said that the Beavers don’t necessarily field a team that will consistently compete with programs like DeForest, that is a credit to the growth of girls’ high school athletics. Eigner, who graduated from high school in 2012, played tennis in her high school days. And even in that brief time frame, she has seen huge growth in the caliber of talent on display in girls’ sports.
“Definitely the competition is there,” Eigner said. “The willingness, the drive to be at a higher level is there. I didn’t necessarily see that as much when I was in high school.”
Eigner conceded that her tennis team doesn’t receive the same level of promotion in the community, but didn’t say that was an issue rooted in discrimination. Rather, she credited it to the fact that tennis spectators are generally expected to stay quiet, and won’t draw the same kinds of raucous crowds as a football or basketball game.
When asked to talk about the results of his school’s programs, Boyer chose to take a view like Eigner. He didn’t outright say that Sauk’s teams won’t compete with other conference programs, but he looked at metrics such as participation and enjoyment rather than exclusively results.
“You can look at it from a different lens, if you want to look at it from results-based, or you can look at it based on participation,” Boyer said. “How our athletes are growing and enjoying that program, I’d say we’d look at our girls’ tennis program. Over the last three years, we’ve skyrocketed.”
Across all people interviewed for this story, nobody pointed to instances of institutional discrimination, be it through availability, funding or any other point. However, Mauston volleyball coach Tara Hansen acknowledged that occasionally, funds can run short.
She pointed to Mauston’s robust athletic booster system as a fallback for programs who aren’t allocated enough funds to get across the finish line for necessary projects.
“We have the athletic boosters… when I needed a new net system that cost $4,500, I physically didn’t have that much money in my volleyball account,” Hansen said. “I went to our athletic boosters and they paid for half of it.”
Hansen clarified that the Mauston athletic director and principal are both supportive of her program. However, hers was not the only case of a program not having the funds from the athletic department to fill out a goal.
Eigner’s tennis team will pay the athletic department back for those new tennis jackets. And while Eigner did note that a Reedsburg tennis match won’t draw the same crowd as a football game, she did say that she doesn’t feel her team gets the same level of promotion as others might.
“Compared to football? Definitely not at the same level,” Eigner said. “And it would take a long time for that to change.”
Eigner did name girls volleyball among the sports that receive more attention at Reedsburg, and doesn’t feel that her team experiences gender discrimination from her school.
“I definitely think there are more people going to the girls’ sports now than there were in the past,” Eigner said.