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Today's Girls Got Game

September 20, 2003

Eons ago, before low-rise jeans and cellphones that chirp rap melodies, high school boys spent their afternoons tearing up the football field while athletic girls became cheerleaders. Some girls did star in tennis, on the diving platform or as daredevils on the balance beam. But in the days when school dress codes often required, well, dresses, girls usually wore a varsity letter jacket only when a gallant boyfriend draped his over their shoulders.

Here's how much has changed: The number of girls who play on high school teams has soared so steeply in recent years that the participation gap with boys is closing fast. This is no surprise to girls who added sports bras, shin guards and basketball shoes to this fall's back-to-school shopping lists. Or to their moms -- many of them veterans of mandatory sewing and cooking classes -- who write checks for that gear.

The National Federation of State High School Assns., which has tracked prep athletes since 1971, has released its latest annual survey. In the 2002-03 academic year, the number of girls and the percentage of girls playing on teams shot up. Some 2.8 million girls nationwide wear their school's uniform, a new high, along with 3.9 million boys, the fourth-highest number ever. California, with 650,000 student athletes, is second only to Texas, with 771,000.

Title IX, the 1972 federal law barring discrimination in education, has thrown open locker room doors to girls. The law aside, ask these young athletes why they tack on hours of sprints and scrimmages to already packed school days: They'll say they like hanging with teammates and the close-up look they get at the cute guys on the boys' teams. Ask again and they'll boast about a winning dunk shot, a personal-best mile time or a one-in-a-million goal kick. They'll flex taut muscles and take macho glee in sweat that by no stretch can be called perspiration.

Those things also matter to millions of moms and dads certain to mortify their daughters by screaming themselves hoarse at this season's openers. So does the knowledge that their girls are probably too busy -- and too tired -- to get into much trouble, yet are building habits of exercise that will serve them well throughout their lives. These should be cheering thoughts for parents staring at nine months of driving with daughters so sweaty that they steam up the car windows on the ride home after practice.

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