The Effect of Gender Opportunity in Sports on the Priorities and Aspirations of Young Athletes


The role and importance of athletics in the lives of today’s
male and female youth is analyzed in responses to a survey co-authored
by a professor and conducted by two undergraduate students at the United
States Sports Academy. Athletes at the middle school, high school and
junior college level were asked to rate the importance of sports in their
lives and the likelihood of advancement in athletics as well as careers
in sports. The two survey researchers, their professor and a third undergraduate
analyzed the results of the survey and how they reflect of the current
status of males and females in athletics today. The authors concluded
that female athletes have a different set of priorities regarding sports
because of the difference in athletic opportunities afforded them.


The differences in opportunities and recognition in sports between male
and females have been well documented. Opportunities for female athletes
have increased in certain areas in the past 30 years, but females continue
to lag far behind their male counterparts.

The researchers in this project set out to find how that situation affects
the values and opinions of young athletes at the middle school, high school
and junior college level. How important are sports in their lives? What
is the likelihood they will play sports at a higher level? What is the
likelihood they will pursue a career in sports, either as a professional
athlete, coach or administrator?

The hypothesis is that the differences in opportunities and publicity
in sports for males vs. females would result in different answers between
the male and female athletes.


The progress made in athletics for women and girls since the Civil Rights
act of 1964 was amended with Title IX in 1972 has been well documented.

Title IX was aimed at outlawing discrimination in schools that received
federal assistance. When opportunities for females in sports began to
be interpreted as “discrimination” and government-backed college
loans and grants began to be interpreted as “federal assistance,”
the expanded scope of the legislation allowed opportunities for females
in athletics to increase dramatically. The recognition of female athletes
resulting from increased opportunities parlayed into a larger place in
the professional sports market place as three professional women’s
basketball leagues, two pro softball leagues and a professional women’s
soccer league have existed since the passing of Title IX.

“When I was growing up, the only women you saw in professional
sports were in tennis and golf,” said Ann Meyers-Drysdale, ESPN
analyst who played in the first women’s professional basketball
league and was the first woman to try out for a team in the National Basketball
Association. “Those are sports not very many people can afford to
play, especially if you are in a family with 11 children (”

The number of collegiate and professional opportunities in sports has
increased for females, as well as participation (NCWGE, 2002). While such
opportunities have increased, the differences between males and female
opportunities in the sports are still apparent. Of the aforementioned
professional leagues, only two continue operations today while the others
lasted less than five years each.

Recognition in the media has also increased, as ESPN televised all games
in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament for the first time in
2003. However, male sports figures still are far more prevalent in the
media. Television commercials with male athletes endorsing products overwhelmingly
outnumber those with female athletic endorsements. Seventy to 90 percent
of the articles in Sports Illustrated are about male athletes (Eitzen
and Sage, 2003).

An NCAA survey of Division One universities in 1992 revealed that men’s’
programs received 70 percent of all athletic scholarship funds, 83 percent
of the recruiting funds and 77 percent of the operating budgets (Eitzen
and Sage, 2003).

Women are underrepresented at all levels of sports, including coaching
and administration opportunities, which have proportionately decreased
since the passage of Title IX. In 1972, coaches in female sports were
about 90 percent women. By 1998, that percentage dropped to 58 percent,
44 percent in 2002. Only 18 percent of those programs were administered
by women (Coakley, 2004).

These facts are reviewed along with the results of the survey, to see
if there is a reflection of the gender climate in sports in the athletes’


Two undergraduate students and their professor composed a survey that
asked the respondents to rate the values of sports and certain aspects
there of on a scale of 1-5, with “5” meaning “very important”
and “1” meaning “not at all important.” They were
also asked to use a 1-5 scale to rate the likelihood of having a future
in sports at various levels of college or careers in sports as a professional
athlete, coach, official or in an administrative function. A score of
“5” meant “very likely” and “1” meant
“not at all likely.”

The specific questions are in Figure 1. The hypothesis was that female
athletes were more likely to give accomplishments in sports a lower priority
in their lives and to have lower expectations about their futures in sports.
The researchers also believed that because the quantity and depth of athletic
opportunities for males exceeds that for females, female respondents would
give athletics a lower priority in their lives and have lower expectations
of their future in sports.

Figure 1: Survey Content
Figure 1

One student surveyed 16 girls and 18 boys who participate in sports at
Central Baldwin Middle School in Robertsdale, Ala. Another surveyed 17
girls and 13 boys who participate in sports at Murphy High School in Mobile,
Ala. The same student surveyed 15 women and 14 men who participate in
athletics at Bishop State Community College, also in Mobile.
After the results were computed, the professor, the two students and one
additional student analyzed the results and the gathered facts about opportunities
for females in sports to see if there was a difference in the responses
between males and females that could be attributed to the current sport


Because opportunities in sports at a higher level are more prevalent
for males than for females, it was believed that the more serious aspects
of sports, — such as competition, scholarship potential and challenges
— would be more important to the male athletes than the female and the
more social aspects — experience, building friendships, fun and physical
fitness — would score higher on the female responses.

The friendship hypothesis held true on all three surveys. Among middle
school athletes, the average score of importance on “building friendships”
was 4.38 for girls and 4.17 for boys, although a comparable number (nine
girls and eight boys) gave that aspect a “5” score. The high
school girls gave friendships an average rating of 4.41, compared to 4.15
for the boys, and the number of respondents rating it a “5”
was 10 girls and seven boys. Community college athletes overall gave friendships
less weight, with the women averaging a 4.0 response and the men 3.36.
Only six women and two men rated friendship a “5.” Females
at the middle school and community college level gave physical fitness
a higher average score than males (4.75 to 4.61 middle school, 4.73 to
4.21 community college), but the high school boys gave it more importance
than the high school girls (4.69 to 4.47). However, 12 high school girls
and 10 high school boys gave physical fitness a “5.” The “experience”
answer was close in the middle school group (4.38 girls and 4.33 boys
with eight each rating it a “5”), but was clearly favored
by the boys in high school (4.54 to 4.24) and women in community college
(4.2 to 4.0). “Fun” produced mixed results, with girls giving
it a higher score than boys at the middle school level, just the opposite
in high school and about even in community college.

Scholarship potential rated a higher importance among boys than girls
in the high school (4.62 to 4.0) level but it is just the opposite in
middle school (4.38 girls, 4.17 boys). In community college, where some
already have scholarships but may aspire to transfer and play at a four-year
institution, the results were about even (4.6 women, 4.57 men). The scores
were about even between male and female athletes at the high school and
community college level in the area of “challenge,” but it
ranked higher in importance for middle school boys (4.44) than girls (4.19).
Competition was also an even factor between males and females at the high
school and community college level, but higher among middle school boys
(4.56) than girls (4.38).

The students were asked “How important in your daily time are the
following activities?” with the choices being socializing with friends,
time with family, practicing sports and time with boyfriend/girlfriend.
Practicing sports was the number one answer among middle school boys (4.61)
and high school boys (4.46) but number two for community college men (3.57)
who gave studying the highest average score (3.79). Six of the 14 respondents
gave studying a “5.” Middle school girls and community college
women made “time with family” their top answer (4.5, 4.6),
while high school girls found studying (4.41) most important. In all cases,
female athletes gave “studying” a higher score than the male

The students were asked “How important are the following accomplishments
to you?” with the choices being winning sports, personal accomplishments
in sports and “good grades.” The results were often mixed
when it came to male vs. female athletes at different levels, but the
female athletes tended to be more serious about their studies as they
approached the higher levels. Middle school girls gave “good grades”
an average score of 3.44 with more than half giving it a “3”
or lower, while high school girls scored it 4.82 and community college
women 4.93.

The importance of sports in young athletes’ lives can also be indicated
by the sources of influence in decisions regarding athletic participation.
The athletes were asked “Whose influence is important to you in
your decisions about sports?” with the options being parents, siblings,
coaches, or teammates and friends. High school and middle school boys
were most influenced by their teammates and friends while coaching influence
was more important to the girls in high school and middle school (with
parents and coaches rating a 4.63 for middle school girls). Parents were
the biggest athletic influence among both men and women in the community
college sample.

The athletes were asked to rate the likelihood they would be accomplishing
each of the following: play sports National Association of Intercollegiate
Athletics (NAIA) or at a small National Collegiate Athletic Association
(NCAA) institution, play sports at a Division One NCAA college or university,
play professional sports and have a career in sports (coaching, administrative,
officiating, etc.) In each category at each level, the male athletes gave
themselves a higher likelihood score than the female athletes. The middle
school boys gave a 4.22 to the likelihood they would have a career in
sports and/or play sports professionally. The lowest average scores in
likelihood of a career in sports were entered by the female athletes (3.13
middle school, 2.47 high school and 3.07 community college).


One of the most telling results of this survey as it reflects the situation
of women in sports is the fact that female athlete at all levels gave
extremely low scores among the likelihood they would pursue a career in
sports, which could be a result of the declining number of women in coaching
and administrative positions in female athletics.

The lack of exposure and opportunities for women’s professional
sports is evident when it is noted that male athletes consistently gave
themselves higher scores than female athletes when assessing the likelihood
of playing professional sports.

Perhaps this also gives the female athletes a more balanced perspective.
While the likelihood scores on professional sports and careers in sports
were consistently low for females, the likelihood score declines in the
male athletes as they reach a higher level: 4.22 in middle school, 4.08
in high school and 3.0 in college. While middle school and community college
students gave high priority to study time and time with family at the
high school and community college levels, it did not become a top priority
for male athletes except in the community college survey.

These results call for future studies with more detailed questions and
larger, more regionally heterogeneous populations. The question to be
answered from future studies is whether the current gender climate in
sports only discourages female athletes from taking their sport accomplishments
to a high level or merely balances their priorities at an early age.


Coakley, Jay J. (2004). Sport in Society: Contemporary Issues. 8th edition.
New York,
N.Y. McGraw-Hill.

Eitzen, D. Stanley and George H. Sage (2003). Sociology of North American
Sport, 7th
edition, New York, N.Y. McGraw-Hill.

National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (August 2002). Title
IX Athletic
Policies: Issues and Data for Education Decision Makers. Washington, D.C.

United States Sports Academy, Women’s Basketball Pioneer Earns
USSA Media Award,
retrieved March 28, 2006 from