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When It Comes To Sports, City Girls In No Rush To Play

sports in hartford


October 23, 2008

Growing up in the South End of Hartford, Katie DaCosta spent more time around boys than girls.

That was life on the basketball court for the child of a coach who was a fixture in the city. But among the girls in her neighborhood, she was an anomaly.

"The girls just weren't interested," DaCosta said. "It was like they weren't supposed to play sports."

DaCosta went on to play sports at Bulkeley High and was a member of the basketball team at Central Connecticut. Now 23, she coaches girls soccer at Classical Magnet in Hartford and will tell you that things haven't changed much in the city.

The girls who arrive at high schools in Hartford have little sports experience. The high school coaches are teaching basics to the kids, who then compete against suburban youths who grew up playing sports in town recreation programs.

According to a study released by the Women's Sports Foundation, which is based in East Meadow, N.Y., Hartford girls are not alone. The study found that city girls around the country start playing sports at a later age and have fewer opportunities. Working with Harris Interactive, the foundation surveyed 2,185 third- through 12th-graders and 863 parents across the country. Urban girls whose family income is $35,000 or less have their first experience with sports at 10.2 years compared with 7.6 years for boys.

Among third- to fifth-graders, 59 percent of urban girls participated in at least one sport, compared with 80 percent of urban boys. In the suburbs, 81 percent of the girls and 89 percent of the boys played at least one sport.

"I can tell you from firsthand experience, that's the way it is in Hartford," DaCosta said. "That's the way it was when I was growing up, and that's the way it is now."

Cindy Turcotte, who coaches girls volleyball, basketball and softball at Hartford Public High School, said she hears many reasons why girls can't play, reasons she suspects are not heard as often from boys, such as caring for younger siblings or for aging relatives. The foundation's study supported Turcotte, finding that girls who dropped out of sports or never participated cited the need to care for a younger sibling more often than boys did.

"I'm not sure if the girls are expected to help out [at home] and the boys aren't because the boys are involved in sports more than the girls," Turcotte said. "... It's too bad. We know sports provide a structure for these kids."

Parental involvement, transportation and costs are other issues affecting participation by girls and boys, but possibly affecting girls more.

DaCosta and her father, Ray, run the Hartford-based Connecticut Northstars basketball program that attracts kids from Greater Hartford. The program offers a fall league at Bulkeley that draws about 100 boys on any given week. There might be 10 girls, and most are from outside of Hartford.

"We try to get the word out, but it's up to parents," Ray DaCosta said. "Parents in Hartford just don't get girls involved, unfortunately."

But even when parents want their daughters to play sports, there can be challenges. At the Hartford Girls Basketball Inc. program, participation has risen since the organization began in 2002, but program head Courtney Rush said fees and transportation keep the numbers down.

"If we're doing something around the corner, the kids will be there," Rush said. "If they have to travel, it gets hard. The girls want to play, but there are barriers that keep them from playing." Fees are a significant obstacle, Rush said.

"It's not easy. But we find a lot of support," Rush said. "The girls definitely want to be out there. These kids want to have fun."

In the West End Soccer coed soccer program, about 10 percent of the participants are girls. Benjamin Cruse, who runs the league, said girls come out, but there aren't enough of them to create a girls-only program.

"Only the top athletes, of these girls, have the courage to stick around," Cruse said. "The girls get discouraged when they're competing with boys and they give it up."

Cruse, who grew up in Hartford, said his programs, which include baseball and basketball, are funded through donations and run by volunteers.

"There just isn't much for kids in the city, boys or girls," Cruse said.

Weaver girls soccer coach Lou LaPenna agrees, and said costs can't be underestimated.

"In Glastonbury or Wethersfield or Simsbury, the parents write a check and that's the end of it," LaPenna said. "It's not that simple in the city, even when the kids want to play."

The Women's Sports Foundation has found that the rate of teenage pregnancy is lower among athletes and graduation rates are higher. That's why Cruse, Turcotte, Rush and others believe that leaders in Hartford would be wise to develop more athletic programs specifically for girls.

"There are some of the most incredible female athletes in Hartford," Cruse said. "When you look at the Weaver girls track team and how well those athletes do. ... The problem is that it's not part of the Hartford culture. It's not like girls are playing sports here like in Avon or Simsbury. The city of Hartford just needs to change something."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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