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Holiday tournament in the District offers more than just basketball

High school basketball teams seeking to compete in tournaments over the winter break didn’t have to look far. Across the D.C. area, there were more than 60 such tournaments.

That’s why the fourth annual National Title IX Holiday Invitational Classic has tried to set itself apart. With three of the 16 registered teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation, the caliber of play might have been enticing enough for some coaches to participate in the three-day tournament. Some teams may also have been lured by the local tours around Washington. But tournament organizers hope that at least a small part of the decision to come is because of the workshops and conferences offered. Sessions for parents, coaches and players — on topics ranging from NCAA eligibility to social media to health and fitness — are geared to get players thinking about life beyond high school.

“We have a lot of kids that graduate [high school] and have nowhere to go, and that shouldn’t happen,” said Janice Johnson, the executive director of the Sankofa Project and founder of the tournament. Johnson found herself almost overwhelmed trying to navigate through NCAA rules while trying to get her own daughter, Patrice Johnson (now a senior playing basketball at Wake Forest), ready for college. “I realized that our kids need advocates,” Johnson said.

It wasn’t just enough to bring in ranked teams and college scouts. Johnson wanted to make participants aware of Title IX. “In a way it’s sad to me,” said Johnson, who encounters many players who don’t understand the significance of Title IX. “They just play because they like to play. They don’t know that it can take them somewhere.”

When Title IX was passed in 1972, fewer than 150,000 girls played high school basketball. Within 20 years, the number had increased 300 percent. Many of those players were the first recipients of scholarships required by colleges and universities. Studies have shown that girls who participate in sports are less likely to drop out of school, get pregnant or get involved with drugs.

Carrying that through to college adds more positive life benefits including a higher earning power.

“I’ve never been to a tournament with conferences before,” T.C. Williams senior guard Christian Roberts said. “I learned a lot. Most of it was about stuff you’ll do once basketball is over — how to save money, how to stay healthy.” For Roberts, whose mailbox is filling with recruiting letters, that time seems far away.

Asked about Title IX, Roberts said she “wasn’t familiar with it until my coach told us about it.” She can’t imagine not being able to participate in scholastic sports. “It’s what I do most of the time. It’s like, sports, sports, sports. If I’m not doing sports, I’m in the house sleeping because of sports. It’s a good way to occupy your time.” Roberts has noticed that students who often veer off course don’t have sports or other activities to keep them busy.

That’s just the realization that Johnson wants to hear.

“I want them to know that you can play with a purpose,” she said. “Let’s get more young girls on a path that can help them be more productive in their community.”

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