Why is Georgia a top producer of girls basketball prospects?

Why is Georgia one of the top 10 states for producing women’s college basketball players?

Over the last five years, Georgia has had 236 players sign with major colleges, according to statistics by ESPN’s Dan Olson. That’s an average of 47.2, compared to California (72.4), Texas (71.4), the Washington D.C. area (66), Ohio (50.4) and Illinois (39.2).

There will be several reports about this in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution but here’s the written opinion of Lee Michaelson, publisher of FullCourt.com on why Georgia is one of the top producers of prospects for girls basketball:

1. Demographics: Georgia is the ninth most populous state in the country. I’m sure it’s not the answer you’re looking for, but simple random distribution of genetic talent would make it likely that unless basketball participation for girls was discouraged, the most highly populated states would be among those most likely to produce a high proportion of top prospects. In addition, while not on a par with states like New York, California or the small New England states, Georgia has a relatively high population density, making it much easier to scout talent than, for example, a state like New Mexico, with a population density of just 6.31 per square mile, which would have your talent strewn out over a vast area. That makes it more likely that a talented girl will be identified. And third … it is a statistical fact, for a variety of social, economic, historic and other reasons that would take some time to discuss, that African-American women, at all levels, participate in basketball at a rate that exceeds their representation in the general population. Georgia is the third most populous state in the country in terms of its percentage of African-American population (30.02%, behind only Mississippi and Louisiana), which would also increase the statistical probability of finding a large number of top prospects in Georgia. At the same time, Georgia has a higher median per capita income than either of those two states, making it more likely that families will have the disposable income necessary to enable their children to participate in leisure activities including organized sports.

2. Developmental: While I don’t have numbers on this ready to hand, it has been my impression in covering the sport that the South in general and Georgia in particular seem to have more schools, at least some of them parochial, that span the continuum from middle to high school, and at times from elementary to high school, and that engage younger girls in organized competitive sports programs. Thus, it isn’t that unusual to find girls who have been participating in organized, competitive basketball — and not just loosely organized recreation leagues — from the fifth and sixth grades.

3. Cycle of Success: A history of success in a sport tends to breed community support for that sport, and this is as true in girls’ basketball as anything else. So to some degree, you could say that Georgia continues to turn out quality prospects because they have had a history of doing that in the past and because the community is aware of, and takes some pride, in that tradition of success.

Whether you describe this factor in terms of role modeling for the girls themselves, or simply as a more immediate awareness of the real possibilities out there on the part of the community at large, when the public sees other young girls in their communities receiving four-year Division I basketball scholarships, progressing to the pros, and playing at the Olympics, they are more likely to encourage their own daughters to participate, to turn out and cheer on their teams, to invest their time and resources in youth and summer leagues, high school booster clubs and the like, all of which both provide greater opportunities for girls to learn the sport and develop their skills and at the same time place a social imprimatur on the activity as something worthwhile and valued for girls to do.

All that might sound a bit remote and academic, but let’s put it this way: I’ve been in communities where there is literally no safe place for a young girl to play. Quite apart from there being no indoor gym available, outdoor courts in public areas are often left in disrepair, with pitted asphalt, often littered with broken glass and drug paraphernalia, and often with rims that are missing or broken. Moreover, the “parks,” if you can even call them that, where those courts are found, have often become the habitat for the homeless and are magnets for the drug trade and other criminal activity. No sane parent who has much choice in the matter is going to allow their young daughter to get on her bike and ride down to a park like that to shoot hoops. But beyond that, by allowing public recreational facilities to remain in that state, the community has sent a message about how much it values basketball as a recreational activity and how much it cares about encouraging kids in general and girls in particular to participate.

Now, can a talented kid rise from the ashes despite a situation like that? Of course. But you’re far more likely to find a lot of those kids in a community where facilities are not only available, but well-maintained and safe, and where families turn out, whether to volunteer as coaches, or to run the snack stand, or to drive to away games, or just to cheer the kids on. It helps even more where the local media promotes participation by focusing as much on the success of young female athletes as males, on the girl who is being heavily recruited as the boys who get offers, which despite the fact that it’s 2014, doesn’t happen everywhere. And those things, in turn, are more likely to happen in communities where there has been some tradition of success by girls in the sport.

Closely associated with that, universities such as Georgia and Georgia Tech, as well as nearby schools in Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina, have a history of strong women’s basketball programs that recruit heavily from within the geographical region. One could get into a chicken-vs.-egg analysis of whether those schools became strong and grew to recruit so heavily on home turf because they were able to drawn on the strong base of Georgia prep talent, or whether the opportunities presented by these well-known women’s basketball powerhouses encouraged local preps to pursue basketball and develop their talents, but at this point in time, it seems evident that the cycle of success is promoting both sides of that equation

4. Historical: There was a period of time between the 1920s and the early ’70s, when participation by women and girls in competitive team sports was actively discouraged by the professional women’s physical education movement.    There were a variety of motivations behind this movement, not all of which were completely nefarious, but which nonetheless combined to create a serious setback for women’s basketball. For example, while some of the physical educators were motivated by now outmoded medical philosophies about the damage such activities might impose on the female reproductive system, or by the view that aggressive competition was “unladylike,” there were others who, out of more egalitarian sensibilities, wanted to see the very limited resources and facilities available for women at the time put to use for the health and hygiene of all women, rather than set aside for elite athletes who were successful at competitive sports. But regardless of the rationale behind it, this movement, which had the backing of first lady Lou Henry Hoover, was devastating for women’s team sports, and especially for women’s basketball. Throughout the country, many colleges that had had varsity women’s basketball teams since the early 1900s dropped those programs, and at the high school level, many states also abandoned intermural team competition and tournaments for girls. (I discuss this movement briefly in an essay I did on the anniversary of Title IX: http://www.fullcourt.com/lee-michaelson/21403/title-ix-former-texas-longhorn-reflects-era-change)

In any event — and perhaps somewhat anomalously, given the prevailing stereotypes of femininity often associated with the South — states such as Georgia, as well as Tennessee and other areas of the South and certain areas of the midwest, while not entirely immune from this anti-team sport activism of the professional women’s PE movement, were less profoundly affected than many other areas of the country. One of the principal reasons for this was the strong presence of the AAU, which at the time was as heavily involved in facilitating competitive women’s basketball among secretarial and Bible colleges and adult blue-collar workplace leagues as it is now associated with development of the sport at the high school level. The AAU and similar leagues really kept the sport of women’s basketball alive in that era, and the areas where the AAU had flourished in the early and mid-1900s tended to have a leg up on other parts of the country after the professional women’s PE movement began to subside in the late ’60s and opposition to women’s team competition largely collapsed under the weight of Title IX in the mid-70s. (I know Title IX was adopted in ’72, but it’s bearing on women’s sports was not well recognized until several years thereafter).

That legacy has also led to a robust presence of high school level AAU girls’ basketball programs in Georgia and other areas of the South to this day, all of which also provide opportunity and encouragement for the development of young talent than may exist elsewhere.

Thoughts? Please post below.

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