Monday, May 24, 2010

Are Flag Football Opportunities Equal Opportunities?

Recently, the New York Times profiled the increasing popularity of flag football as a high school sport for girls, particularly in Florida. In trying to examine this trend, the article managed to add controversy by sensationalizing the positions of some women's sports advocates and casting them as the mean, feminist foils to good wholesome fun.

Flag football for girls is controversial in Florida for the same reason competitive cheer is controversial. When schools count activities like sideline cheer or flag football as athletic opportunities, it reduces resources and legal incentive to add other athletic opportunities for girls, opportunities that would give girls who want it similar access to college or life-long play. Nobody is knocking flag football (or cheer for that matter) as a valid and valuable activity. But it is relevant to ask what responsibilities sports organizations have to act in a coordinated fashion when deciding to adopt an undeveloped sport. Women' sports advocates are only questioning the sports organization’s obligations to provide boys and girls with the same types of experiences, particularly when both boys’ and girls’ opportunities are so constricted.

In a letter printed in yesterday's Times, the Women's Sports Foundation's Director of Advocacy, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, tries to set the record straight. I say "tries" because the paper edited her letter to obscure its main point: Hogshead-Makar doesn't object to flag football itself, but to the Florida High School Athletic Association's strategy of discouraging more traditional, competitive, (and perhaps tellingly, more expensive) sports for girls like crew, water polo, lacrosse, and archery by offering them easier, cheaper, but less comparable alternatives in the form of flag football (and cheer). The fact that the FHSAA is promoting flag football (as opposed to other emerging sports on NCAA's horizons) without putting in the work to support the sport's infrastructure -- governance and promotion outside of Florida's high schools -- further suggests that the association cares more about helping schools find a quick fix to major Title IX compliance problems than trying to truly equalize opportunities for Florida's girls.