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Minnesota is the national leader in girls’ participation in high school athletics.

Ellie Walkers signed up for three sports this year as a sophomore at Tartan High School. Football in the fall, hockey in the winter, track and field athletics in the spring.

EIllie Walkers signed up for three sports this year as a sophomore at Tartan High School. Football in the fall, hockey in the winter, track and field athletics in the spring.

These are three of the 24 state-sanctioned sports offered to girls like Ellie who love to train, play and compete. Hundreds of girls in these sports are winning Minnesota state championships this month as the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches on June 23rd.

“For many people, sport is the main thing in life,” Volkers said at a recent track and field competition. “It’s something you do every single day, especially if you’re doing it in competition. It’s nice that we get the same support. It makes us feel like what we’re doing matters.”

There are a lot of girls like Ellie Walkers in Minnesota—so many, in fact, that the state leads the nation in the number of girls who sign up for high school sports. For every 100 high school students in Minnesota, there are 82 sports registrations. Girls from Minnesota first took first place a decade ago and haven’t left since, according to participation data compiled annually by the national poll and analyzed this month by the Star Tribune.

Girls’ participation in prep sports in Minnesota—about 118,000 registrations for 143,000 high school-age girls—has grown so much over the years that it now often reaches or approaches the level of participation of boys in the state.

Jeri Dirt in 1980 as she stood in front of her Apple Valley cross country team—all three of them.

Dirt graduated from Iowa High School in 1972, the same year that Richard Nixon passed Title IX, a law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded education and activities. Eight years later, she began coaching track and field athletes and cross country runners, and by the end of the 1980 season, Dirt had grown to 33 members.

For the next 34 years, she made it her mission to get girls involved in Apple Valley sports. Before retiring in 2014, Dirt watched her track team and reflected on how much had changed for girls in Minnesota.

“I remember all of our girls were wearing their gold and they were going out and watching them warm up together, I mean, I still get goosebumps and goosebumps,” Dirt said. “I’m still so proud of it. We would have 100 girls.”

Women and activists like Dirt have propelled Minnesota to the top. In Minnesota, the participation rate for girls in high school sports was 82.2% in 2019, the latest year for the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) annual survey due to the pandemic. This level of participation takes into account the number of registrations; if a student-athlete competed in three different sports, they are counted three times.

“I think Minnesota has always been known as a state that is at the forefront of human and civil rights in a number of areas,” said Nicole LaVoye, director of Tucker’s Girls and Women in Sports Research Center. at the University of Minnesota. “And I think our rates of girls’ participation in sports are a good indicator of that.”

LaVoy called Title IX “critical” to this success and cited Minnesota’s emphasis on equal opportunity, the law’s cornerstone, as a factor in making the difference.

“We know girls are interested, and the Minnesota High School League has provided many opportunities for girls to play sports,” LaVoy said. “And we know that when girls are given the opportunity to play sports and be in the right environment, it leads to many positive outcomes in terms of health and psychosocial development.”

Erich Martens, executive director of the Minnesota High School League (MSHSL), agreed. He cited MSHSL’s state championships as an indicator of equal opportunity for all student-athletes in the 24 state-sanctioned sports. Examples include the boys’ and girls’ state football championships at US Bank Stadium and both hockey tournaments at the Xcel Energy Center.

“We are focused on providing girls with great experiences and opportunities in our activities, both in our sports and in our fine arts,” Martens said. “And we’re seeing those numbers continue to rise over time.”

There are several reasons for Minnesota’s rise to the top. Some of these are obvious, such as the addition of sports such as women’s hockey and women’s lacrosse in Minnesota in the middle of the Title IX era, and the surge in popularity of cross-country sports (cross country, track and field) and football in recent decades.

Some reasons are a little more difficult to determine. Martens made the effort, calling it “part of the Minnesota tradition” of “always thinking about opportunities for both sexes and how we can make it equal in every aspect.”

Not all

When Dirt’s coaching career at Apple Valley began in 1980, boys’ participation rates were 22 percentage points higher than girls’. This gap has largely disappeared. The two rates have been about the same in recent polls, with even a slight advantage for girls in some of the latest polls.

Volleyball (16,398 in the latest poll) has been the top Minnesota girls for over 20 years, with track and field, softball and basketball rounding out the top four. In recent years, cross-country running and football have also exceeded 8,000 participants each. In 2019, over 3,000 people participated in thirteen different sports in Minnesota.

“Athletics has definitely come a lot further than when my parents were younger,” Walkers said. “It’s nice to see us getting the same as the boys.”

Mara Campbell, Volkers tartan teammate, thanks coaches for equality in the sport she plays.

“There is mutual support between the boy and girl teams, and the same goes for the coaches,” she said. “Both teams are active and train all year round – both guys and girls have sports camps even in summer. We both have access to a gym and a strength training camp, which is pretty cool.”

That Walkers and Campbell are able to train and compete in many sports without a second thought is exactly the kind of confidence and comfort that Dirt spent trying to instill in her athletes.

After training, Dirt often treated her team to milkshakes or popsicles. This was her community building. According to Dirt, once the girl saw that her friend was doing well, it became much easier for her to encourage her to compete. As more and more girls became successful over time, camaraderie and confidence grew, as did participation.

The increase in her team was a challenge that Dirt did not anticipate. She grew up in Iowa and never felt the need for legislation like Title IX until she came to Minnesota and saw the participation of underperforming girls.

“In Iowa, I hadn’t even heard of Title IX,” Dirt said. “I played basketball all four years. I played softball. I didn’t even realize there were no girls’ teams until I moved to Minnesota.”

Mud and many others have been hard at work on the changes, and the work is far from over. LaVoy said that this 50th anniversary is just as much about what’s to come in the next 50 years.

Athletic opportunities are “rooted in a system that favors men and boys, that is created by men,” she said. “This system is taking a long time to change.”

LaVoy wants to see major systemic change, pointing to the fact that girls still start playing sports later and drop out faster than boys. Girls are two to three times more likely to drop out of sports in high school than their male peers, according to the Tucker Center.

Athletes can see the difference too. Josie Mleinek and Cleo Jurkovich, members of the White Bear Lake High School track and field team, noted at a recent meeting that disparity in stimulus funding has resulted in boys getting windbreakers with the school’s logo on them while girls don’t.

“Because they get more stuff, they feel like they have power over us,” Mleinek said.

Mleinek and Jurkovic appreciate the opportunities and use them to the fullest, but they are not yet done with the fight. Among their hopes for what’s yet to come: the all-girls Bears football team.


Maya Irvin, a student at the University of Minnesota on assignment from the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.

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