Giving Girls a Sporting Chance of Avoiding Teenage Pregnancy


At 15, Jessica Cosby has an arm that may send her to college and beyond--to the Olympics, she hopes. The Granada Hills 10th-grader is Los Angeles’ most accomplished female shotputter, a solid sprinter and a renowned rebounder who has twice made the all-city girls’ basketball team. If Cosby is going to be a statistic, she wants to appear in the box scores on the sports page, not in an update on teen pregnancy.

A study released last week by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that young women who do not participate in organized athletics are more than twice as likely than young female athletes to become pregnant during their teen years. The findings, culled from a number of nationwide surveys by Dr. Don Sabo of D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y., held true across racial and ethnic lines.

For Cosby, a muscular young woman whose moves draw gasps of admiration from female teammates as well as Granada Hills’ male athletes, those findings hit home. Dating and sex don’t fit into her schedule. And pregnancy has no place in her near-term life plan.

“I try not to put myself in the position” of being pressured to have sex, Cosby says. “Right now, I don’t even have the time for it. I have school and practice and then schoolwork. I don’t even have enough time to watch TV.”


The study’s findings come at a time when women’s sports are steadily growing in visibility and participation at all levels. Since the early 1980s, Title IX--which prohibits sex discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal funds--has brought a steady expansion of resources to women’s sports in primary and secondary schools, as well as in colleges.

In recent Olympic Games, the United States has fielded medal-winning teams in softball, basketball and ice hockey. And female basketball players now have a constellation of professional stars to emulate in recently launched women’s basketball leagues.

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, one in three high school girls now competes in organized athletics--up from one in 27 in 1972.

A study released last year by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness found that girls’ early involvement in athletic activity has strong physical and psychological benefits, warding off chronic disease and depression. At the same time, however, the council warned that growing numbers of teens of both sexes are becoming couch potatoes. Of females ages 12 to 21, 14% reported no recent physical activity--a figure that rose to 21% for young black women.

Coaches and sports boosters who work with teenage girls cite a long list of benefits that athletic participation may bring to this vulnerable population of young Americans. Girls who go out for sports gain self-confidence, social recognition and a sense of “physical empowerment” said Wendy Hilliard, former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and owner of a community gymnastics program for girls in New York City.

Those benefits, she added, may help them resist pressures to engage in sexual activity before they are ready in an effort to enhance their social standing.

“Sports lets girls cut loose from the conventional scripts of femininity,” Hilliard said. “It definitely appears to be part of the solution” to stemming teen pregnancy, she added.

For low-income and minority girls especially, athletic participation may help keep their focus on the future, emphasizing the potential rewards for athletic success and the costs of childbearing, said Carolyn McKenzie, who in 1994 founded Soccer in the Streets, an organization that has brought soccer to 55 inner-city communities.


“A lot of girls get pregnant because they have an identity crisis,” said McKenzie, who calls herself a “soccer mom” to 60,000 kids in low-income neighborhoods. “They feel they have to be someone and that someone is a mom. Sports can mold their character and give them an identity.”

Beyond those factors, experts note that a girl’s sports participation tends to give her a steady, trusting relationship with a concerned adult--usually her coach and often a parent. A study released last month by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy concluded that parent-child “connectedness” is strongly related to a lower adolescent pregnancy risk.

Finally, in the effort to drive down teen pregnancy, it pays not to overlook the obvious: “The simple truth is, you don’t get pregnant spending your afternoon playing sports,” said Brenda Cooper, assistant director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.