A big game had just ended, and Jocelyn Fernandez, the only girl on the St. Michael’s High School football team, celebrated alone in the girls’ locker room while her teammates rallied together in the boys’ locker room. The lonely postgame reception was typical for the first female football player at the school.
But, for Fernandez, her desire to play was worth being the sole girl on the team. Her passion for the sport, and the inequalities her participation entailed, demonstrated the struggle so many aspiring athletes face: breaking gender barriers in high school sports.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, 28 percent of coed public high schools have what are considered to be “large” gender disparities in access to team sports. These gender gaps, based on the ratio of female population to female-allotted spots on on male sports teams, are often excessive.
Title IX, passed by the Supreme Court in 1972, prohibits discrimination and provides financial equality under the law for all genders that are in programs receiving federal funding, including athletic programs. However, according to a CNN report, schools with gender equity gaps of 10 percentage points or higher are most likely not in compliance with Title IX. This often means that girls sports teams lack the funding they require, therefore allowing female interest in certain sports to go unnoticed.
Fernandez, a 2016 graduate of St. Michael’s, was not about to let her passion go untested.
“Entering my senior year — I’m not going to lie — I was a little bit scared to play with the guys, only because they were all so much bigger and faster than I was,” she recalled. “I never felt threatened, though. I knew that I could go up against anyone if I just believed in myself as everyone else did.”
Over time, Fernandez proved to her father — the school’s football coach — that she was capable of playing the game just like the boys.
“Football is usually male-based, but I decided to let Jocelyn play as long as she [could] compete and not get injured. She worked hard,” said coach Joey Fernandez.
Jocelyn quickly made history, becoming the second female athlete in the history of New Mexico to score a touchdown — a victory that confirmed her belief that girls should have an equal shot at playing sports typically dominated by boys.
“If a girl has a passion to play a sport she is scared of, I would tell her to go for it and do what makes you happy,” she said. “The people who doubt you don’t matter. … You’re never going to know if you don’t try. And let me tell you, it is so worth giving it a shot.”
Jocelyn Fernandez’s story is just one aspect of the multifaceted issue of female athletes playing sports at the high school and collegiate level. Beyond the difficulty of playing on a team dominated by male athletes, female athletes often feel oversexualized when it comes to the perception of the uniforms they wear while playing sports such as volleyball or cheerleading. While many feel these sports have uniforms that are too short and flashy, some coaches and players dismiss that notion.
“Girls that play volleyball and do cheer wear what we think is correct for them to wear,” said Lydia Sanchez, the girls dance team coach at St. Michael’s. “We are a Catholic school, and if anyone feels that their uniforms are quite sexual and eye-opening to men, that’s just them.”
“Then again,” she added, “I wouldn’t want to see my child wearing something that is cheap and inappropriate.”
Ashley Evans, a club volleyball player at Capital High School, said she does not feel exposed in a volleyball uniform.
“I do think that as far as clothes for volleyball, [girls] do show a lot of skin, but I’ve never felt really uncomfortable,” she said.
Unlike volleyball, which has always been a competitive sport, cheerleading was originally created to not just rally the players on the field but give spectators something showy to look at. Yet, as times have changed, cheerleading is now recognized as a competitive sport in high school and on the professional level. It isn’t just focused on entertaining an audience or motivating a sports team, but also on practicing intense physical activity to use girls’ dancing talents, and to vie for state championship titles.
Now, as female athletes pursue the chance to play on male teams, male athletes are similarly starting to pursue sports historically dominated by girls and women. Last year, the National Football League allowed male cheerleaders to cheer on NFL teams with women. But that doesn’t mean the shift comes easy.
Sevastian Malcolm, a sophomore volleyball player at Santa Fe High School, has his own bittersweet experience as a boy participating in a predominantly female sport. After 10 years of playing volleyball, Malcolm is considering moving away from Santa Fe because he’s not finding enough opportunities to play volleyball at the high-school level. Malcolm practices with the girls on his school’s team, but because of a New Mexico Activities Association rule, he can only manage games, not participate.
But he said he does not feel discriminated against.
“I have come to accept it, and it’s never been weird because I have been playing with girls ever since I can remember,” he said. “I never saw myself as one of them, but neither did I see myself as an outcast. I’ve always just been someone who wanted to play a sport they enjoy.”
Even though Malcolm said his dream of pursuing volleyball is difficult due to his gender, he doesn’t disagree with the current gender barriers in high school sports.
“I think it makes sense that they don’t want boys playing on girls teams and vice versa, in terms of skill levels colliding and making it difficult to have a fair sport,” he said. “But I think they should at least offer teams for everyone who wants to play a certain sport.”
The basic biological differences between females and males may also create a confusing distinction between sexism and capability when it comes to sports, some say.
“Boys are usually stronger, biologically speaking. That’s just how their bodies are,” said coach Fernandez. “But mentally, both genders can be incredibly strong, so it really comes down to their mindset.”
Evans said that regardless of whether girls are as physically capable, there should still be more recognition toward those sports that are predominately female.
“While I don’t feel that most [girls] have the physical capability to play football, I do think that volleyball and girls basketball should get just as much hype as the football team or … be recognized more,” she said.
It all comes down to whether an athlete is willing to put in more hard work and effort, no matter their gender, coach Fernandez said.
“In some ways, there’s truth to ‘boys will be boys.’ They feel they have the upper hand on girls,” he said. “But in a lot of events, there are some girls … that are really good athletes and work hard at what they do. Nobody has the upper hand unless they are a hard worker.”
Sofia Ortiz is a junior at St. Michael’s High School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lincoln Byrd is a sophomore at Santa Fe High School. Contact him at email@example.com.