Smart women like sports.
That statement may strike you as a gross generalization as well as a self-serving one, and I must admit that there's no scientific research to back it up. But I know it's true, because, to my mind, the anecdotal evidence is conclusive: Talk to any smart woman long enough and, regardless of her age, experience or background, you'll find she's a sports fan or an athlete—or both. There could be an exception out there, but I've yet to meet her. This isn't just coincidence. It's because, I'm convinced, sports help make girls smart. (Before I go any further, I should say that because virtually every American boy is programmed to play and watch sports, it's nonsense to state "smart men like sports." If you doubt this, simply attend any game in Yankee Stadium.)
Although the majority of college students are female, most scholarships, both academic and athletic, are given to males. Boys get more athletic free rides, in part because far more boys than girls participate in sports. Boys are awarded more academic scholarships because by the time they reach adolescence they generally score higher on standardized tests—particularly the math portions of those tests. There may be a connection here.
No one knows what causes the so-called math gender gap, although the phenomenon has been studied and debated for more than 15 years. It has been chalked up to everything from an educational system that discourages girls from pursuing math and related subjects to biological characteristics—a "math gene" or raging hormones—that somehow help boys hit the right numbers. But a real factor, I suspect, is sports.
Sports are nothing if not numbers: scores, seconds, inches, pounds, meters, kilometers, dollars. Think about it: How far can you read through any sports story before you hit some figures? The repeated manipulation of numbers starting at a young age, even on a simple level, has to have some lasting effect. Typically, little boys trade baseball cards covered with sugar dust and statistics, while little girls search the shag rug for an itty-bitty high heel for a Barbie doll. Twelve-year-old boys know how to calculate a batting average; girls can tell the difference between periwinkle-and cornflower-blue. Both useful skills, sure, but the SAT is in black and white.
Alice Miller, director of the Women's Center at Brooklyn College, also feels there's a connection between math and sports. This summer her college administered a four-week program called Eureka! for 30 economically disadvantaged girls in New York City. The purpose of the program was to offer intensive training in math and sports. The idea was to help the girls—who, at 13 and 14 years old, were at the age when the math gap begins to show up in testing—learn the lessons of sports that relate not only to math and the sciences but to the larger world as well.
Miller hoped the sports would provide a good time, which they did, but the "playing around" had serious aims: to help the girls learn to compete, to devise strategies and solve problems, to take risks, to work with people who are acquaintances rather than best friends and to improve their spatial awareness.
There's nothing quite like sports to give one a feeling for relationships between speed, time and distance: How far do I have to hit this ball, and then how fast do I have to run to make it safely to first? Distances and areas are often expressed as so many football fields, but if you have never played that game, it won't mean as much to you. And what is business but competition and working in a group—with some people who may be nitwits—toward a common goal?
Although more and more women and girls discover sports each year, there's still a pervasive attitude that such activities are for boys—as if a "sports gene" were located only on Y chromosomes. When Miller interviewed candidates for Eureka! she didn't expect that much in the way of sports backgrounds, but even she was surprised to find how limited the girls' experience was. "It boiled down to double-Dutch jump rope," she says.
It's amazing that, with all of our beliefs in the physical, mental and character-building benefits of sports—even if spatial awareness doesn't come to mind, fitness probably does—we're still far more likely to push a boy into sports than a girl.
You can make your own uncontrolled study of the math-sports connection in the comfort of your own home. Take a girl of malleable age and try starting a conversation with, "So how many do you think Mark McGwire will hit next year?" or "How 'bout that Jackie Joyrier-Kersee?" If the subject responds, "Oh, gross," it's late in the game and your work is cut out for you. But if you persist, you could end up with a rocket scientist. Or maybe a pretty good shortstop.