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Center of attention

December 10, 2008


Mary Jo Kane, director of the University's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

Mary Jo Kane is the director of the University's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

One-of-a-kind Tucker Center promotes research around females in sport

By Rick Moore

Women and girls are competing in organized sports in unprecedented numbers, from youth sports all the way to the Olympics. And they often—though not always equally—share the stage and the newspaper pages with their male counterparts.

But that's not to say that females don't face scores of issues and inequities, both in organized sport and in achieving a healthy degree of physical activity. And those issues are the focal points for the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

Begun in 1993 (through the vision and generosity of namesake Dorothy McNeill Tucker), the Tucker Center is unique in the nation. It is devoted to "sponsoring, promoting, and disseminating scholarly activity on how sport impacts the lives of girls and women"—in other words, doing research and outreach that matters. The center has a staff of six, as well as affiliated and visiting scholars and student researchers.

If tangible and meaningful research findings are the goal, the Tucker Center is delivering. In 1997 it released the report "Physical Activity and Sport in the Lives of Girls: Physical and Mental Health Dimensions from an Interdisciplinary Approach," which essentially highlighted the benefits—physical, social, psychological, and cultural—that girls receive from physical activity, as well as the environments in which they most thrive.

Report card
Watch a News Service video about the latest Tucker Center report, which was released in the spring.

Approximately 10,000 of those reports and 15,000 executive summaries were distributed worldwide.

This spring, a decade after that first report, the Tucker Center released a new report with updated findings entitled "Developing Physically Active Girls: An Evidence-based Multidisciplinary Approach."

It revealed that while girls are participating in organized sports in historic numbers, many girls are failing to meet minimal standards of physical activity necessary for health benefits or, worse yet, they are completely sedentary. Further, there are systematic barriers in place (such as poverty) that greatly hinder girls' access to and participation in physical activity. 

The report is not meant to be all doom and gloom; instead, it's designed to be a road map toward equal opportunity in sport and physical activity. "The United States as a whole—from parents and coaches to school administrators and community leaders to policy makers—needs to make a commitment to eliminating the barriers girls in this nation face when it comes to engaging in sports and physical activity," says Mary Jo Kane, director of the center. "Physical activity is not an 'add-on,' but rather a core value and principle for healthy and effective living."

Nicole LaVoi, the associate director of the Tucker Center, notes that the task at hand is complicated, but critical. "I think the key take-home for me was that getting girls to be physically active is a very complex undertaking," she says. "You have layers of barriers, whether they're individual barriers, family barriers, community barriers, or societal barriers…. So when you layer gender and race and socio-economic status, it's a wonder that we have any girls being physically active other than the white middle class.

"The work that we're doing as a result of the report is to try to drill down and talk to groups of girls of color and girls of low socio-economic status to hear directly from them what they perceive as going on—what they like, what they don't like, what makes it easy or difficult for them to be physically active. Because we have stacks of research, but we have very little research that is from the voices of the girls themselves."

A wide range of expertise

Kane has done extensive research on the portrayal of female athletes in the media, and the tendency for sports marketers to sexualize female athletes with provocative clothing and poses, rather than show them in uniform on the field or court and in action, as men are more often portrayed.

The Tucker behind the Center
The center's namesake is Dorothy McNeill Tucker, a 1945 University grad in recreation leadership. Tucker later earned a doctorate and went on to become the first woman tenured at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Her gift established the Dorothy McNeill and Elbridge Ashcraft Tucker Chair for Women in Exercise Science and Sport in 1993—the first of its kind in the world and the foundation for the Tucker Center.

"I am sure I have received more from the gift than has the University," Tucker once said. "The joy of giving is increased tremendously when you can see how your gift is being used during your lifetime."

She is also a leading expert on all things Title IX—the 1972 legislation that mandated gender equity in intercollegiate athletics. (Read about how Title IX has revolutionized women's sports at the U and nationwide.)

LaVoi's background is in sport psychology and sport sociology, and much of her work revolves around gender issues in youth sports and educating parents and coaches in that area.

And center co-director Maureen Weiss's research focuses on positive youth development through sport and physical activity, including coach and parent influence, self-perceptions, and character development.

The center's broad portfolio of research translates into calls from around the globe asking for opinions on issues of the day. LaVoi fielded one such request from China during the recent summer Olympics.

"I got a call from a reporter in Beijing who writes for Reuters News Service, and she was writing a story on whether it's healthy for young girls to be training at high levels," LaVoi says. "And I knew where she was going with that, given the controversy of the Chinese women's gymnastics team.

"My comment to her was, 'Well, I think we should ask the question of all athletes, not just girls. Is it healthy for anybody, male or female, to train at high levels? Is that developmentally appropriate?' From the Tucker Center perspective, our concern would be, 'Why are we only asking this question of girls? We're not concerned about the injuries of boys?' Plus, when you frame it that way, there's a big assumption that girls and women are more vulnerable and frail and prone to injury."

"So, we get many calls and we often respond in ways that reporters aren't necessarily looking for," LaVoi adds with a smile. "As you know, people have an angle and they want you to comment to support their contention, and oftentimes we do the opposite."

A go-to place, as intended

LaVoi says the bottom line for the Tucker Center is to make a difference in the lives of girls and women in sport.

"And I think we do that in many different ways. We have so many different lines of research, whether it's the report, or examining the portrayals of female athletes in sport media, or our work in educating coaches and parents," she says. "I want the Tucker Center to be the go-to place, so if you have a question about girls and women in sport, you go to the Tucker Center first. And if we don't know the answer, then we'll probably be able to guide you in the direction where you can find the answer.

"We have decades of a system that has generated inequities for girls and women in sport and physical activity, and the Tucker Center is in place to help create social change around some of these issues."