Girls’ athletics programs have had to scratch for every yard. They can’t give up ground now.

In 1972, thirty-seven words made huge changes across our country, changes that gave girls and women new opportunities in classrooms and on playing fields.

Title IX was passed by Congress and signed into law eight years after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was to prohibit discrimination in employment based on race, color, sex, national origin, or religion.

In both cases, although changes have been wide, there is still discrimination — often it is less blatant, buried deeper, and harder to see.

Here is what Title IX says: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

We had been a student, a female student, at Guilderland High School before Title IX. As a leader of the Girls Athletic Association, we had to depend on the goodwill of coaches to help us, depend on our parents to drive us to games to play other girls at other schools who were doing the same thing we were — fighting to play sports.

We competed wearing our gym suits — red cotton onesies with snaps down the front — while the boys who were our classmates had real uniforms, buses to transport them, paid coaches and assistant coaches, cheerleaders to encourage them, and massive crowds to cheer them on.

So it is with great satisfaction over the last three decades at this newspaper, we have run stories and pictures of the girls’ sports teams at Guilderland and the other local school districts we cover — Voorheesville and Berne-Knox-Westerlo. We’ve been so proud of the girls’ hard work and many accomplishments and equally as proud of the communities — the taxpayers and the fans — as well as the school districts that supported them.

We were surprised then, this winter in the midst of Voorheesville hammering out its school budget for next year, when a small group of women complained about inequality in sports funding. Title IX is not anything new, said one woman, and asked why the disparity should continue.

We commend the district for delving in to take a good hard look at the numbers. “There are 13 offerings for boys and eight for girls, which gets into a situation with Title IX,” said Francis Rielly, Voorheesville’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, during a recent school board meeting.

Athletic Director Joseph Sapienza reported that 197 girls participate in girls-only sports — cheerleading, volleyball, swimming, soccer, basketball, and softball — while 230 boys participate in boys-only sports — golf, football, soccer, basketball, swimming, volleyball, wrestling, baseball, lacrosse, and tennis.

The district’s spending reflects that disparity: $91,000 is spent on girls’ sports annually, and $130,000 on boys’ sports.

Voorheesville also offers three sports — cross-country running, bowling, and track — for both boys and girls, which serves 118 athletes and on which $39,545 is spent.

About 82 percent of Voorheesville high school girls and about 87 percent of boys participate in sports.

We’re pleased that so many boys and girls at Voorheesville play sports — well above the national average of 56 percent. That shows the district and community have an understanding of the benefits of school sports and a commitment to support them. Bravo!

We’re also pleased the school board is looking at adding other sports for girls. We don’t know if offering more sports would attract more female athletes but having the board take it seriously is an important step, even if the disparity isn’t enough to run afoul of Title IX.

We need to pay attention. Before Title IX took effect, in 1971-72, fewer than 300,000 girls across the United States played high school sports, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. That same year, over 3.6 million boys played on high school teams. The number of boys has continued to increase steadily and was up by 15 percent in 2006. At the same time, the number of girls playing sports in high school exploded, increasing by 904 percent. Last year, over 3.4 million girls played sports in high schools across the country — an all-time high, according to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Thirty-seven words made a difference.

Many of the stereotypes fell away, spreading beyond the realm of federally-funded schools. We covered a story in the mid-1970s where men and women were arguing against girls playing in Little League. One of the arguments was a stray ball could hit a girl in the chest, affecting her ability to grow breasts.

As it turned out, sports can actually protect a woman’s breasts. According to a study by Inger Thune published in the New England Journal of Medicine, as little as two hours of exercise a week on the part of a teenage girl can reduce her lifelong risk of breast cancer.

Study after study has shown girls who play sports are more confident, have higher self esteem and better body images, and are less likely to be involved in drugs and more likely to graduate from high school than girls who don’t play sports.

But we must not rest on our laurels. Girls still lag behind. According to National Center for Educational Statistics, while girls comprise 49 percent of the high school population, they get only 41 percent of the athletic participation opportunities, and the gap widens in college.

The three-pronged test that has evolved for Title IX’s athletic requirements says that at a compliant school, girls and boys participate in athletics in numbers substantially proportional to their enrollment, the school has a history and continuing practice of program expansion responsive to the developing interests and abilities of members of the underrepresented sex, or the school’s existing programs fully and effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.

Currently, high schools do not have to report information to the federal government the way colleges do to ensure Title IX requirements are being met. We believe Congress should require high schools to report data on the gender breakdown of their teams, including participation numbers and expenditures, similar to that required at the college level. This would let students, parents, schools, and their communities evaluate gender equity.

In the meantime, we commend Voorheesville for making those numbers public and urge other districts to do the same. It is up to our local school leaders and school communities to remain vigilant.

Voorheesville’s superintendent, Brian Hunt, said of the disparity, “We kind of slipped into this.” That’s easy to do because, as he pointed out, new sports are often proposed and pushed through by the community.

And while we commend the board and school leaders for being responsive to community desires, they also must lead the way as educators to be sure that the underrepresented are not overlooked.

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