A lot has changed in the sporting world over the last 40 years.
Once a solution to boredom during weekends or long summer days — with only the occasional World Series or Olympics garnering a national stage — each new day now brings us wall-to-wall coverage and in-depth information on just about any facet of sport that can be imagined.
As athletes have evolved from the local heroes of past generations to the current global superstars with multi-million dollar contracts and constant exposure to a worldwide audience, there has also been a huge boom in women who have joined their male counterparts as revered athletes and inspiration for the next line of great athletes to come.
Decades ago, almost every advertising dollar and publicity campaign centered around sports was focused on male athletes. Now, there are plenty of women in the limelight. From the achievements of Billie Jean King on the tennis court in the 1970s, to the Olympic triumphs of 1980s female athletes like Mary Lou Retton and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to the star-studded members of the current U.S. women’s soccer team, women in all aspects of the sporting landscape now have the opportunities to succeed and be recognized that didn’t exist in previous generations.
Most of today’s female athlete stars are already professionals in their respective sports, but much of their fame can be credited to the strides that have been made for women at the earliest stages of athletic involvement. When Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was passed, there were just over 800,000 girls participating in high school sports throughout the country. Even for the girls already inclined to play sports, the options were severely limited as there were an average of just 2.1 women’s teams per school. Now, over four million girls are part of an ever-expanding array of sports, with expanded opportunities to take their abilities to collegiate and professional levels.
Schools in the Bulloch County area were also a bit light on women’s sports 40 years ago, but have always strived to provide the best possible atmosphere for its female athletes at the high school level.
"Back when I first started out at Southeast Bulloch, track and basketball were the only sports for girls," legendary SEB coach Fred Shaver said. "Still, this school and the school district was always very supportive of our girls teams. We have continued a winning tradition with those teams along with now being able to offer more sports."
Shaver, who guided the Yellow Jackets to consecutive state football titles in 1972-73, was an integral part of SEB women’s athletics in the 70s as he also served as coach of the girls’ B-team. For all of his success on the gridiron, Shaver’s girls were just as impressive, building a winning streak that stretched over four years.
"We had girls with a lot of heart and competitive spirit," Shaver said. "That’s something that we always tried to emphasize and something that carries on to today’s teams."
Of course, even for schools like SEB that were ahead of the curve of Title IX, the increased notoriety in women’s sports has made things easier for today’s rising stars. The higher levels of funding and recognition for girls sports are now most evident in basketball.
Once a sport with rules widely varying from its male counterpart, women’s basketball has evolved to feature huge high school participation numbers, a competitive professional league and generates the most revenue of any NCAA women’s sport.
The rapid growth of the sport in the last 20 years has afforded female high school hoops stars to prosper. A generation ago, only a few universities took women’s basketball seriously or took time to recruit. Now, the competitiveness has skyrocketed, allowing many more girls to move on and reap the rewards of playing at higher levels.
"It’s been a hard, but fun journey," Georgia Southern freshman Sierra Kirkland said. "I’m just so grateful to have this opportunity."
Kirkland starred for four years at Statesboro High before signing to play with GSU this season.
Along with her dominance at the high school level, the recent growth of girls’ Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams has benefitted the highest-achieving girls athletes. These squads — reserved for the highest levels of prep talent — used to only cater to the boys, but girls are now seeing the boost that these showcase teams can bring.
"(Playing AAU) gave me more opportunities and exposure," Kirkland said. "But I think the biggest help is that it can improve everyone’s game. Sometimes in high school, you play some teams that aren’t so good. In AAU, you’re matched up with more talent. That really helps you to get better."
Specialized leagues are just one of many consistent improvements that have been flowing into girls’ sports at the high school level over the last four decades.
While Title IX may have forced the earliest steps to be taken in regards to funding and availability for women’s sports, those measures have altered the sports landscape, allowing any girl to participate in a sport while also creating a competitive and opportunistic environment for those girls that prove they can excel at a given sport.
The groundwork that was laid 40 years ago has not only led to an environment where over 50 percent of today’s high school girls participate in some sport, but has also paved the way for continued success. Thousands of girls each year now sign athletic scholarships, continuing their athletic careers, but also earning funding toward a college education where no such scholarships existed even a generation ago.
And the ball is still rolling forward.
In Bulloch County alone, two new girls teams are on the rise as Statesboro’s newly formed volleyball team prepares for its second season while SEB also has a volleyball squad in the works.
"We always supported giving our girls every opportunity in athletics," Shaver said. "I’m glad to see that’s still the case, both here and in other places. The point is to just support our girls in whatever they want to pursue. If they want the ability to compete in sports, that’s what we need to give them."
Whether girls sports at the high school level is viewed as a recreational activity or the beginning of a path of lifelong athletic success, there is no denying that the growth is a positive thing. From the smallest softball and track squads in tiny towns to the barnstorming elite basketball and soccer travel squads, girls are now offered any and every chance to participate.
When Title IX took effect 40 years ago, many girls programs were thrilled just to be able to exist. Now, as female athletes have achieved the notoriety and big-money contracts that used to exist only for men, there’s no telling where the next 40 years will lead.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.