EDITORIAL: Girls need what sports can provide

May 1—Among Caitlin Clark's millions of fans are hundreds of thousands of young girls.

You see them, eyes agog and cheeks flushed, in the autograph lines for Clark, the Indiana Fever rookie who set records for points, ticket sales and TV viewers during her recently completed college basketball career at the University of Iowa.

You also see these young fans wearing No. 22 jerseys and T-shirts in the stands and cheering like crazy during Clark's games.

And, hopefully, you'll see them playing on basketball courts, soccer pitches and every other sort of sports venue as the years progress.

Clark and scores of other amazing women playing college and professional sports give these young girls someone to root for. More importantly, they stand as role models to emulate.

Sports provide opportunities for young girls that go far beyond playing the game. Both anecdotes and statistics bear out the life-changing influence of participating in athletics.

Girls who continue to play sports through high school do better in the classroom, have fewer early pregnancies and have higher rates of career success as adults.

More than 90% of women serving in executive roles in the United States played sports as girls, and more than 50% were college athletes, a survey by Ernst & Young/ESPNW revealed. "Nearly three-fourths of these women said their time on the playing field helped develop their leadership 'muscle,'" according to an article posted in 2021 on the website.

Sports are fun and they instill all sorts of skills and values in girls, including discipline, physical fitness, teamwork, handling success and failure, and perseverance.

Thanks to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1972, which dictates that girls are offered equal opportunities in schools, participation in girls' sports has skyrocketed over the past five decades.

In '72, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports across the country, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. That number had increased more than tenfold to about 3.24 million by the 2022-23 school year.

Still, lingering gender norms generally guide boys more than girls toward sports. And in some communities, girls still don't have equal access to sports teams, facilities, equipment, coaching, practice time and prime game times. As a result, 58% of high school sports participants in 2022-23 were boys. In Indiana, 60% were boys.

Fewer young girls start playing sports and they tend to stop earlier, too. The Women's Sports Foundation reports that, by the age of 14, girls stop playing at twice the rate of boys, and that by age 17 half of girls who started off playing sports have quit.

Sports certainly aren't the answer to all of the many challenges facing girls, but they can be a part of the solution.

Clark is already wielding her influence to encourage girls to step onto the field of play and stay there.

Girls, like boys, need heroes and role models like Clark.

But when it comes to sports, those closer to home — parents, coaches, boosters and school administrators — can make the biggest difference by encouraging girls to play and providing opportunities in athletics.