The state of Michigan is committed to providing more opportunities for girls and women in sports.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently created the Task Force on Women in Sports, which is geared toward increasing the level of girls’ participation in sports and providing more leadership roles for women in sports.
The task force has 14 members, 13 women and one male, who are from Michigan and around the country. They are charged with providing recommendations, policy ideas, suggested areas of investments and programs for the governor’s consideration.
Some of the members include Kathy Beauregard, athletic director at Western Michigan University; Keri Becker, athletic director at Grand Valley State University; and Mike Guswiler, president of the West Michigan Sports Commission.
Beauregard has been serving as AD for 22 years. She is one of only nine women directors in the country out of 136 Division I schools that offer football.
Before becoming AD at GVSU, Becker served as a softball coach at Ferris State University for 15 years.
Guswiler has been leading the WMSC since 2007, which has brought in thousands of athletes from across the country to participate in youth and amateur sporting events in West Michigan. Year over year, the nonprofit has created millions in economic impact for the area.
The task force held its first meeting in June, and according to Guswiler, the group will use a three-prong approach to address the issues that are negatively impacting the participation of girls in sports and women leadership roles in sports.
“First, we are going to be doing a historic assessment,” he said. “What is happening? Why is this happening? Where are some biases and barriers still occurring? As the only male on this task force, I have a lot to learn. These are things that I, perhaps, have taken for granted or didn’t immediately identify that I need to dive into and to really understand.”
Despite Title IX, Guswiler said girls’ participation in team sports is declining, both in youth and amateur sports. Guswiler said the task force will work with the Women’s Sports Foundation, which was founded by former professional tennis player Billie Jean King, to find data and identify barriers.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate as boys.
Sometimes, Guswiler said, parents want their children to specialize in one sport during their secondary education with the hope of their child securing a collegiate athletic scholarship.
But that approach may not be best in the long run. For example, Guswiler said the premise behind the State Games of Michigan, an Olympic-style event hosted by the West Michigan Sports Commission, is so people of all ages and all abilities can participate and get active in all types of sports.
Girls have 1.2 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys have, per the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Some of the hindrances that have prevented girls from continuing to play sports once they’ve reached high school and throughout high school are a lack of funding, not a lot of available gyms/outdoor space, and limited coaching staff and officiating personnel, among a host of other barriers.
“Some are at a disadvantage and aren’t able to play in sports because sports have become pay to play,” Guswiler said.
As the director of athletics at GVSU, Becker leads 10 women’s sports teams, as well as eight men’s sports team. She also played collegiate tennis and softball.
She said because of that experience, she was able to build on it and become a softball coach at Ferris and, subsequently, become the director of athletics at GVSU. While she has been able to rise up the ranks of the sports industry, she said opportunities are limited in the male-dominated industry.
“(Opportunities for women in sports) have been limited over time,” Becker said. “So, that means women with experience are also limited. When you have women with less experience than their male counterparts, (the males) are winning those positions. But it is also a mindset for those in the hiring positions (deciding) as to the type of skills and abilities (they can) bring to the table within an athletic organization.”
In addition to the stereotypes that accompany women in sports, Becker said one of the reasons there could be a lack of women in sports is they quit in order to become caretakers.
“Although this is not scientifically proven, sometimes women get out of the athletic industry because of the impact it has on their family when they are the ones sacrificing their careers to stay at home,” Becker said. “It is about chasing their partner’s career, if it is a male. They get pulled to wherever their partner is going to get a job.”
While there are limited opportunities for women to take on leadership positions in sports, the landscape seems to be shifting.
Former WNBA player Becky Hammon was hired as an assistant coach for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs in 2014. During training camp and the preseason in 2015, Jen Welter was an assistant coach intern for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Former college basketball player Sarah Thomas was hired as an NFL official in 2015.
With this opportunity to be on the task force, Becker said she will help to further the advancement of women in sports.
“It is a great opportunity to do some work outside of the Grand Valley athletic college setting,” she said. “I think I owe it to those who did the work before me so that I can have these opportunities to ensure that these opportunities exist for those who come after me.”