Opportunities for Georgia's high school female athletes had long been increasing even before the Equity in Sports Act became law last year.
While the Georgia High School Association began recognizing champions for sports such as basketball in 1945, the number of girls championship sports exploded in the 1990s.
In the past decade, the GHSA started crowning champions for girls sports in soccer (1992), volleyball (1993), fast-pitch softball (1994) and golf (1998). Now the GHSA offers 10 championship sports exclusively for male athletes and 10 for female athletes.
"In '92, we had just started volleyball as a state championship sport," GHSA Executive Director Ralph Swearngin said. "In '93, we started with about 12 fast-pitch softball teams, and it's grown to several hundred. In '93, we started competitive cheerleading."
In contrast to the GHSA, Richmond County has been a little slow in adding girls sports. Fast-pitch softball was added in 1997, and volleyball was added in nine of the county's 10 high schools this year.
Girls also have the opportunity to play traditionally male sports such as football.
Eighth-grader Nichole Hall recently finished her first season of football at Harlem Middle School. She played tight end and was a member of the kickoff return team.
"Playing football is something girls don't normally do," Nichole said. "They just don't understand the game and don't go out for it."
Thirty years ago, Nichole might not have had the opportunity to lace up her football cleats. In 1972, however, Title IX became law and prohibited sexual discrimination in schools in two ways: academics and athletics.
"Society's changing a little," Harlem Middle School football coach Benjie Moore said.
Aside from football, riflery and wrestling are two sports in Georgia where girls compete against boys. Sarah Jackson, a ninth-grader at Aquinas High School, said she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's really nice being with the guys," she said. "You get that sort of camaraderie you get with the guys that you normally wouldn't get (with the girls)."
In 1994, Aquinas sent an all-girls squad - consisting of four shooters and an alternate - to the GHSA state championships.
"That was probably the first time that ever happened," said Phil Williams, Aquinas' riflery coach. "Our team got some TV footage out of that because people were amazed to see females in there. Right now, it's not unusual at all."
While girls are making progress in riflery, Sonja Shirley, a junior at Aquinas, said she hopes the sport doesn't get divided between the sexes.
"You don't feel quite as equal that way," she said. "You might be thinking that the other side might be getting better. It's better to stay together so you can see that both sides are progressing the same."
One controversial girls sport in Georgia is competitive cheerleading. Under federal Title IX, competitive cheerleading is not recognized. But the GHSA recognizes the sport for compliance with the Equity in Sports Act and has crowned a state champion every year since 1994.
"We require physicals and eligibility and all of that," Mr. Swearngin said. "Our belief is that competitive cheerleading is more exacting and strenuous than a number of other female sports."
Glenn Hills competitive cheerleading coach Chandra Welcher said she believes competitive cheerleading should be recognized as a sport. So far, she said, she sees no benefit for her squad from the Equity in Sports Act.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 114.
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