Editor’s Note: Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is Executive Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
To say that American female athletes dominated the recent Tokyo Olympics in August would be an understatement.
Among the 66 medals won by American Olympians – most by any country in the history of the Games – were gold medals from the American basketball, volleyball, water polo and hockey teams. Beach volleyball.
Eighteen medals were won by the American swimmers, the female track and field athletes took home 15 medals, and the American women’s softball and soccer teams took home silver and bronze medals, respectively.
During the last 30 years of the Olympic Games, the United States has dominated the women’s team sports of basketball (nine gold medals), soccer (four gold, one silver, one of bronze) and softball (three gold, two silver) —not to mention the countless number of medals in track and field. And last summer, the US women’s volleyball team won their first gold medal.
These performances of some of the most qualified female athletes in our country would never have been possible without the passage of Title IX and the offerings of these sports in the schools of our country. With the opportunity to play afforded by historic Title IX legislation in 1972, girls’ participation in several sports in high school skyrocketed in the years that followed.
When the NFHS conducted its first participation survey in 1971, basketball and outdoor track and field were the major women’s sports, accounting for about two-thirds of the total 294,000. However, with the opportunity to play other sports, girls initially flocked to volleyball and softball, as well as cross country and eventually soccer.
Football, in fact, has seen the most remarkable growth. In 1971, only 700 girls played soccer in high school. Twenty-five years later, that number had climbed to nearly 210,000; and as Title IX’s 50th anniversary approaches, there are now nearly 400,000 girls playing high school football – a staggering 56,200 percent increase in 50 years. Football now ranks fourth in popularity among high school women’s sports, all thanks to this opportunity in 1972.
There are, however, many other success stories. The pre-Title IX survey in 1971 indicated that 1,719 girls participated in cross country. With increases each year through 2015, today there are 219,345 girls competing in high school programs and sport ranks sixth in popularity.
Although the participation numbers have stabilized a bit over the past 10 years, fastpitch softball is another sport that flourished after the passage of Title IX. With less than 10,000 participants in 1971, the numbers rapidly increased to 220,000 in 1985 and 343,000 in 2000, and softball is currently fifth among women’s sports with 362,038 participants.
Since track and field and basketball were the primary sports at the start of girls’ sports programs, the increases in these sports have not been so dramatic; however, they remain the first and third most popular sports, respectively, today. Volleyball, however, like football, continues to rise.
Without a doubt, volleyball has seen the most consistent increases among girls’ high school sports over the past 50 years. After starting with 17,952 participants in 1971, the numbers grew to 300,810 in 1990 and 409,332 in 2010 and 452,808 in 2018. During its rise, volleyball overtook basketball as the No.2 women’s sport. .
And among the top six women’s sports from 2010 to 2018 (numbers are not available for the past two years due to the pandemic), volleyball gained the most participants (43,476), followed by football (32,549). And it all happened thanks to legislation passed in 1972 that was not fundamentally intended to provide opportunities for girls to participate in high school sports.
The NFHS is leading a one-year celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which officially takes place on June 23, 2022. “Title IX to 50 – Celebrating and Growing Opportunities” highlights the impact of law by celebrating inspiring people and milestone moments in Title IX history, and continuing to develop educational and competitive opportunities for the future.