Although ESPN has made dozens of documentaries for its acclaimed “30 for 30” film series, the number of those films that focused on women could be counted on one hand.
But a new film series, “Nine for IX,” will turn the network’s lens to women over the next two months. The documentaries, all produced by women, will start tonight with “Venus VS,” the story of Venus Williams’ successful campaign for gender equity at Wimbledon.
All of the documentaries promise to be “must-see TV” for any sports fan. Last night, the Center for American Progress in Washington was host to a premiere screening of two of the films, “VenusVS” and “Let Them Wear Towels,” which takes a look at the struggles of female journalists for locker-room access during the first few decades after Title IX became law in 1972.
The documentary features pioneers such as Melissa Ludtke, Claire Smith, Lesley Visser and Christine Brennan, telling the compelling story of the struggle by these women to break through the legal and then social barriers to cover sports.
After the screening, Brennan and Ludtke, part of a post-screening panel, talked about trying to get equal access to athletes at a time when women were sometimes shoved or carried (literally) out of locker rooms. Ludtke described herself as a “quiet negotiator” who wouldn’t call her editor after getting kicked out of a locker room but would instead steel herself to get the story. “We were just determined that no one was going to stop us,” she said, adding, “Each of us was working out there on our own.”
Brennan said that as an undergraduate at Northwestern, she had been inspired by Ludtke’s story. The famous Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973 also influenced her to see sports as place where women belonged.
Brennan added that although problems still arise with access, “this is resolved….There are tens of thousands of locker-room entries by women.”
“We’re there. It’s done,” she added.
Ludtke said there is still a “cultural lag” around television, where relatively few women have made it into to booth for play-by-play and commentating for men’s marquee sports. “We’re in a position today that we were in the 1970s,” she observed.
Almost as if on cue — to underscore her point — a 9-year-old girl in the audience raised her hand and told the panelists about the “wide gender gap” in her elementary school.
“I’m the only girl playing with the boys at recess,” she said.
Laura Gentile, espnW vice president, asked whether the girl felt she was “accepted” by the boys.
“Not really,” the girl replied.
“I get upset at times at how much hasn’t changed,” Ludtke said. “Let’s keep telling the stories.”
Brennan agreed that women have barriers to address. But she said the progress already has been notable. “We’re just at the beginning,” she said. She added, “Where will we be in 40 years? That’s a fun thought.”