It’s no secret that, despite a half-century of progress, sports still tend to be a male-dominated world. Two local eighth-grade girls, along with help from the Nike Game Growers program, are aiming to change that.
Payton Bickford and Summer Lebow, both students at Lincoln Middle School, were selected by the Portland Trailblazers on Sat., Dec. 21 to be their representatives in the Game Growers Training Camp next month in Beaverton, Ore. The girls were announced as winners during halftime of last weekend’s Trailblazers game versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Through changes in culture and expectations over the last several decades, as well as civil rights legislation like Title IX, the United States has seen young girls’ presence in sports steadily rise. The problem, however, is not a lack of participation, but a lack of continued engagement.
“I think a lot of girls don’t try sports in middle school or high school because they’re embarrassed or shy or something,” said Lebow.
Indeed, according to the Game Growers’ website, the crux of the issue lies in the fact that, beyond eighth grade, girls are 50 percent more likely than boys to drop out of sports, “creating barriers both physically and socially that can last a lifetime.”
To remedy this inequality, Nike partnered with the NBA and WNBA to create the Game Growers initiative. In October and November of this year, eighth-grade girls from around the country were invited to submit their ideas on how to grow basketball participation amongst young girls in their communities.
“They went to a Nike basketball camp over the summer and I just got a random email [about Game Growers] and I said, ‘Oh, you guys should do this,’” said Sophia Raade, Lebow’s mother.
The girls began discussing ideas and eventually submitted their proposal. The idea centers around physical education classes being the foundation of kids’ introduction to sports. The program would invite local collegiate or professional women’s players into middle school P.E. classes to both help instruct and share their stories in the sport, discouraging the concept that girls continuing in sports is in any way embarrassing or strange. It certainly helps that some of the most inspirational talent in the women’s basketball world is just a short drive north of the Grove.
“They had to draw a big picture with the application and they drew a picture of [Sabrina Ionescu],” said Raade.
Once the application period ended in November, each member team of the two professional basketball leagues then selected the two local students with the best proposal to be that team’s representatives at the Game Growers workshop at Nike’s World Headquarters from Jan. 24-26, 2020.
Not only were Bickford and Lebow chosen by the Trailblazers, but unlike many of the participating teams who informed their winners via email, Portland decided to tell their winners in person with a little extra fanfare.
“When we found out, [the girls] had just had their last game, so we were like, ‘Can we tell them?’” Raade said. “[The Blazers] said, ‘No, don’t tell them. Our plan is to wait and announce it at the game.”
The team provided the girls and their families with 100-level tickets to last Saturday’s game and a wealth of behind-the-scenes experiences both before and during the contest, including a walk through the players-only entrance into the Moda Center.
The girls, however, were kept in the dark about the real reason they were there.
“My mom told me that my uncle got these tickets through his work,” Bickford said. “Then he said something came up at work so he’s giving the tickets to us and two friends because he heard how much we like basketball.”
As a team official continued showing them around the arena, Bickford noticed her name tag read, ‘Youth Engagement Specialist’, and the observant eighth-grader became suspicious.
“They were slowly figuring it out,” said Raade. “So I showed them the winners from Washington on my phone and they thought they lost.”
“So then we actually believed in the ‘uncle’ thing again,” Bickford said laughing.
The jig was up for good when an event organizer, while leading the girls out to halfcourt during halftime, began asking Lebow how to pronounce her name when they read it over the intercom.
“I realized it when Blaze [the Trailblazers mascot] was coming over with Nike backpacks full of stuff,” said Bickford. “Then this person named Scott came up to us and said, ‘OK, we’re just gonna walk into midcourt and when I wave, you guys wave because you’re on the big screen.’”
It was an overwhelming moment for the young basketball visionaries, standing at halfcourt, waving to the crowd while surrounded by all the chaotic hubbub of professional sports entertainment. The girls were then whisked off the court by team personnel after their appearance on the jumbotron and team officials filled them in on what and why they had won. It was then that it began to sink in and the girls were elated.
According to the Blazers, the two Lincoln Middle Schoolers’ proposal was by far the best they received and they will next get a chance to improve upon and add detail to their idea along with all the other NBA and WNBA team winners at next month’s workshop in Beaverton.
The girls are already brainstorming how to further flesh out their concept and hope to add a scholarship facet that would eliminate financial barriers to sports participation that many young female athletes face. If all goes well, there could be even bigger things in the future.
“If we keep going, we have a chance to go to New York,” said Bickford.
After the conclusion of the three-day training camp at Nike Headquarters, selected teams with the best proposals amongst the round one winners will be sent to the WNBA draft, held in April in New York City. At that point, the girls would have a chance to see their proposal be implemented nationally.
While still relatively early in the program’s process, simply addressing this inequality in boys’ and girls’ sports participation is a big step in the right direction. Whether or not Bickford and Lebow make it further in the contest is beside the point. They’ve already shown Cottage Grove could be a community that leads the way.