Why GIRLS in the Game? by Jess Larson

Photo Jul 07, 3 36 11 PM
Looking out over Douglas Park

I  walked down the large front steps that overlook the pool and basketball courts as I left work last Friday afternoon. Every day (especially since school let out for the summer), there is a large group of boys playing basketball. Sometimes an older group, sometimes younger, they are always there enjoying an afternoon game.

Today, however, I noticed someone new. There was a girl around the same age as the players hovering at one end of the court right under the basket. She was clearly ready to play; she had her own ball, dribbling it as if to warm up. But she wasn’t   part of the ongoing game with the rest of the boys despite her readiness. As I paused on the steps to watch, the game moved suddenly back towards her end of the court. All 15-20 boys literally played around her and her basketball until the pack of boys moved to the other end of the court again. There she stood alone, dribbling her basketball and watching the game.

Although it lasted no more than a minute, the image of this girl with her basketball being completely ignored by the boys around her reminded me of why Girls in the Game’s girl-only space is so important. In this space we provide the opportunity for girls to play, even if it is out of their comfort zone, even if they haven’t been asked, even if they are nervous to try. Growing up, I loved sports but no matter how passionate or ready I was, I still remember being just like that girl.

My favorite sports were always high-velocity, competitive and physically brutal. Football with guy friends? I was there. Paintball in the woods with a bunch of my brothers’ friends? Sounds like a plan. Soccer was my official sport of choice, and I played co-ed soccer through middle school as a defender, fouling a bit more than was acceptable. One thing remained the same; I was frequently the only girl playing, and as the sole girl, there was a certain set of unspoken rules that applied just to me. Miss a single pass even in backyard football, and you won’t receive another pass the rest of the game. The boys could try and fail, but if I, the only girl on the field ever fumbled, it was the only play my teammates remembered. Standing on the sidelines and gearing myself up mentally to step into a game where I was often unwelcome is a visceral childhood memory that has followed me to this day.

After a very muddy rugby game!

Even through college, the same dynamic persisted, although this time I wasn’t always alone. I remember peering out the window of my dorm room with my friend Kate at the large group of  30-40 college students  warming up for Friday afternoon rugby. My South African World Politics professor had mentioned during class that week that he was teaching the basics of rugby in friendly practice/scrimmage sessions every Friday afternoon; he made it clear that women were welcome. But as Kate and I watched from across the street with increasing dread, not a single woman joined. We looked at each other, both of us ready to go with athletic clothes and soccer cleats; we knew many of the guys, had played with them on other intramural teams and worked on class projects with them. Some would be welcoming, but others definitely would not be. Did we really want to take all that on just to play a game? With adrenaline rushing, we jogged down the stairs and out the door to join the fray. To this day, Friday afternoon rugby remains one of my favorite memories from college.

To be clear, I am not blaming “the boys” in any of these situations; it is a dynamic they’ve learned from an early age on the playground, a dynamic that society perpetuates as we’ve seen in the Always #LikeAGirl campaign. There were plenty of boys that accepted my competitive nature as normal, but seeing that lone girl on the basketball court last Friday was a powerful reminder of why the girls-only space that Girls in the Game provides is so crucial.

Over and over the Girls in the Game staff hears the same question from adults learning about our organization and often from the boys in the CPS classrooms where we recruit for our After School program. Why GIRLS in the Game? Why isn’t there a Boys in the Game? Or an Everyone in the Game?

And the answer is surprisingly simple; because girls need it. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, in high school alone, girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play. Let me run that number by you one more time… 1.3 million fewer opportunities to be healthy, to make friends on a team, to learn a new skill or to simply enjoy the power of play.

But this issue isn’t just about opportunities to play; it’s also about the culture that surrounds those sport opportunities. Even if girls have endless chances to play, if they are the only girl in a hostile environment how many will simply walk away? In co-ed programs like school gym classes, we see so many girls hovering around the edges of the game as the boys and a select few girls battle it out in the center. Girls in the Game sends the message that sports are FOR girls, both those hovering on the sidelines and those already playing. We tell them that there is a space dedicated solely to them and the sports that they want to play. That they belong.

Last Friday, I couldn’t stay to watch the outcome for the girl that I had once been, standing alone on the basketball court. I don’t know if she walked away or jumped into that game. Deep in my competitive soul, I hope she jumped in, held her own and became a better ball player both physically and mentally because of it. But moreover, I hope she finds a court that welcomes her, a basketball team that wants her off the sidelines and in the game.

Over the next month at Girls in the Game’s Sports and Leadership Summer Camp, 120 girls will be able to play in a space dedicated to them. The Chicago Force, the women’s professional tackle football team, and the Chicago Women’s Rugby Club (along with many others) will be joining us as guest coaches. And I am thrilled that our girls can interact with women who not only love sports but compete at a high level within their own sport. The girls will  see rugby and football, dance, yoga, basketball, lacrosse and so much more. At Girls in the Game, there aren’t any “girls’” sports or “boys’” sports. There are just sports, and sports are for us all. If you want more information on how to get involved, or ways to donate to make a girl’s summer contact Jess Larson at jlarson@girlsinthegame.org


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