Column: Making space for girls’ sports

Published 10:55 am Monday, August 7, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Last week was a momentous week for girls’ sports not just Shelby County, but in all of Alabama.

The AHSAA’s decision to officially sanction girls wrestling and girls flag football as championship sports beginning in 2024-25 was the culmination of years of effort to get the sports recognized in the state of Alabama.

That in itself is incredible, but what’s even more inspiring is the different paths that the sports took on the road to sanctioning.

Girls wrestling began as a part of boys wrestling, and it was the only sport in the state where girls competed against boys. While girls competing in traditionally male sports such as football or baseball is nothing new, albeit rare, having them share the wrestling mat with boys put them on an uneven playing field.

It’s not that girls couldn’t beat boys (which they did, and claimed state championships in multiple states at that), but it was the psychological impact of having to wrestle boys that took a toll on girls.

Take Yasmine Oliveira, for instance. After wrestling throughout middle school and earning her way onto Spain Park’s varsity wrestling team as the school’s first female wrestler, she got burnt out trying to adjust to wrestling boys at the varsity level.

It drove her to quit the sport in her sophomore year, and she explained why in a 2021 interview with the Reporter.

“I felt very challenged, which was a good thing at first, but wrestling with a bunch of guys messed with my head, and I wasn’t winning as much as I was used to,” she said. “It was mentally challenging, but it was also draining. Wrestling in middle school against guys was a completely different story, and I thought high school wrestling wasn’t going to be much of change. At first I was doing good, but I got tired of not doing as well as I thought I would.”

Once girls wrestling was given enough support to have its own series of meets in 2020-21, including a separate state championship, Oliveira returned, and she finished as a runner-up in her first state championship. She even went on to earn a spot in the Pan-Am Games to wrestle for Brazil.

The fact that one of the top athletes in her sport was driven away instead of welcomed with open arms is shameful, and who knows how many other talented athletes never competed in girls wrestling simply because they didn’t have the space given to them.

Oliveira and countless other athletes, parents, coaches and organizations restlessly lobbied the AHSAA to get behind the girls wrestling movement, and now, she is preparing for the Olympic Trials for the chance to compete for Brazil at the Paris 2024 Games. Regardless of if she fulfills her dream, she serves as an example of what happens when girls are given equal support in the athletic arena.

The explosive growth of the sport has certainly helped kick the door down, and girls flag football gained sanctioning in the same way.

However, that explosive growth was fueled in a different way. The Atlanta Falcons and the NFL recognized the need for more girls sports, especially in the Southeast, and saw the initial popularity in flag football. They both threw their weight behind it, and not only supported it with their words, but they put their money where their mouth was and footed the bill for equipment and other expenses.

Because the Falcons and other organizations did the hard work of funding the sports, they made it much easier for the AHSAA and other states to recognize flag football and for schools to begin offering it.

Cynics may argue that this is just the NFL trying to shove flag football down our throats, but the participation numbers say otherwise. The sport wouldn’t work without schools and players picking up flag football in such large numbers, and that’s exactly what’s happening.

This fall, girls around Shelby County and the state will compete on the football field for the chance to play in the state championship game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, a stadium where they watched countless Alabama games played on television and in-person and where they will compete on the same stage as the Super 7 football championship games.

That is the definition of equality. Girls will get the same opportunity to compete on the same stage as boys, but on a separate, more equal playing field with athletes like them.

As we’ve seen over the last few years, and especially in 2023, equality in sports is no longer a buzzword or simply the right thing to do, it’s a smart and profitable thing to do. Just look at the growth that the WNBA and women’s college basketball and softball have seen since sponsors and the media began treating them as not just an afterthought, but as true elite competitions. Even right now, the Women’s World Cup is showing the global growth of women’s sports through the incredible accomplishments of the U.S. Women’s National Team and the talent and excitement in countries like England, Spain, Japan and many more.

Women’s sports are on the rise, and giving emerging sports like girls wrestling and flag football a stage to compete on is the best way to aid this growth. The demand is there, and the more exposure these sports get, more popularity will follow. That was the entire goal of Title IX, to encourage equality by creating spaces for women to compete, and the more this happens at the high school level and below, the better our communities will be.

But if there’s one lesson we can take from advocates of both of these sports, it’s this: these sports are going to grow whether you like it or now, so schools and the AHSAA have two choices: get on board or get out of the way.