She didn’t realize it at the time, but participating in athletics helped changed the course of Ramona Cox’s life.
“In middle school at Detroit Urban Lutheran, I played every sport that was available. When I went into Renaissance High School, I was very confident. I played a sport every season, and it helped to keep me out of trouble and give me focus,” said Cox, who is the associate athletic director at Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL), as well as the head varsity volleyball coach at Cass Technical High School and a coach with Instant Reply Volleyball Club.
Sports continued to be a positive influence when Cox attended the University of Michigan, where she played on the women’s volleyball team. She went on to earn her master’s in sports administration from Wayne State University and her doctorate in kinesiology with a concentration in sport psychology from Michigan State University. Her dissertation on the challenges facing urban African American adolescent girls in sports (concern over sweaty hair and discomfort wearing shorts-shorts each play a role) makes her the perfect choice to head PAL’s Girls Changing the Game initiative. That program is receiving renewed focus this year as PAL increases the number of girls participating in sports and provides quality programming outside the playing field.
Calling All Girls
The Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) says girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school sports than boys. To help combat that, the foundation gave PAL a grant in 2016 to reach even more girls in Detroit. Among the programs PAL offers girls are youth empowerment workshops, self-defense classes, mentoring, leadership training, junior coaching opportunities and off-the-field experiences like college tours, etiquette classes and financial literacy workshops.
“The goal is to increase quality programs for the girls we serve, and to increase the number of girls in our programs. Once we capture them, we want to retain them,” Cox said. “We also want to increase the number of female coaches. Our numbers are pretty good at 47 percent, but we want to have more and keep developing training specifically for working with girls.”
Anne Doyle, a former TV sports broadcaster, Ford executive and author of “POWERING Up! How America’s Women Achievers Become Leaders,” serves on the Girls Changing the Game committee. “This has been a passion of mine for maybe 50 years,” she said. “I deeply support the work PAL is doing, particularly to support our inner-city girls, who are already born with some very heavy obstacles.”
Not surprisingly, girls and boys approach sports differently. Boys generally don’t mind the stereotypical harsh coach who constantly yells, but a girl may be turned off enough to quit. “Girls come more for the social interaction, so you have to play on that and give them opportunities to bond,” Cox said. “That keeps them coming back. And we want to have more girls-only leagues, because sometimes girls just don’t want to play in co-ed programs.”
Keeping girls involved during their middle school years is crucial, Cox said. “This is the age where they are becoming attracted to boys, have more responsibilities at home and are more affected by what other people say about them and noticing what they look like. A lot of girls drop off at that level.”
High school girls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy, says the WSF, are more likely to get better grades and graduate, and have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem. They also have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being and lower levels of depression.
These days, getting positive messages out to girls and young women is becoming increasingly important as awareness of sexual harassment explodes.
“Getting girls in sports could potentially help them in these types of situations. It allows them to develop confidence and leadership skills and have this voice to say ‘no, this is not okay,’” Cox pointed out.
Doyle agreed. “Sports is a very valuable tool to inoculate our girls and prepare them to have the confidence and strength to resist sexual harassment when it happens to them – and it will.”
Changing the Playing Field
Girls Changing the Game is just one of the many programs offered by PAL, whose 11 athletic programs each year attract about 14,000 boys and girls – a number the organization plans to increase to 20,000 youth throughout the city.
PAL, which has befriended Detroit youth for more than 40 years, is currently transforming the former Tiger Stadium into a mecca for youth sports. The $20-million project includes an artificial turf field called the Willie Horton Field of Dreams presented by Meijer and a 2,500-seat stadium named The Corner Ballpark presented by Adient. Also planned is a Hall of Heroes honoring those who played at the legendary stadium, including Anne Doyle, one of the first women to report from there. The grand opening of the redeveloped space at Michigan and Trumbull takes place this spring.
To help finance the ambitious project, PAL is selling commemorative bricks that will line the newly designed front plaza. They are available in three sizes at a cost of $150 to $500. People can personalize their brick with several lines of text and a sports logo, if they like, and also purchase a 4-square-inch keepsake replica tile for $25. It’s the perfect gift for those who grew up watching the Tigers and Lions play at The Corner, as well as those who appreciate its place in history, not just in Detroit but nation-wide. As famed former Tiger Willie Horton said, “Some great people were a part of The Corner over the years, and even out of the country people talk about The Corner.”
Title IX, the landmark legislation that requires that women and men are provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports, turns 46 years old this June. Since then, said the Women’s Sports Foundation, the number of girls playing sports has increased from one in 27 to two in five. However, the group says only 25 percent of the nation’s girls are getting the appropriate amount of physical activity.
Females from lower economic backgrounds, females of color and females with disabilities suffer even greater negative health consequences as a result of less engagement in physical activity and less access to sports, says the WSF.
One of legendary sports broadcaster Vince Doyle’s seven children, Anne Doyle grew up with athletics and was one of the first journalists to cover the effects of Title IV. “I sat in front of the TV and cried at the first Olympics where U.S. women dominated and won medal after medal,” she said of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. “That was when the true impact of Title IX started to be visible in women’s athletic performances – and it has continued to accelerate. American women left men in the dust at the  Rio Olympics.”
But there is much work to be done. Doyle points to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, in which the U.S. ranks 49th out of 144 developed countries in equality between men and women. “Most of the time the U.S. was in the top 20, then we dropped to 26 in 2015 and 43 in 2016,” Doyle said. “We are dropping like a rock compared to the countries. Things are getting worse, not better.”
That is a reality PAL is determined to combat.
“We are definitely making better strides and girls are getting more opportunities,” Cox said. “If you want to get girls in the game, PAL is the place to do it.”
Added Doyle, “We cannot be satisfied with change being slow. We can’t risk this next generation of girls.”
Learn more about Detroit PAL and its plans for The Corner at detroitpal.org. To purchase a brick, visit detroitpal.org/brick-campaign.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.