When: Tue., July 16, 8 p.m. on ESPN
Spinning off from its great “30 for 30” series, ESPN’s “Nine for IX” commissioned nine documentaries on the subject of women in sports, the third of which, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s Let Them Wear Towels, airs tonight. (Previous entries included Middle of Nowhere’s Ava DuVernay on Venus Williams; upcoming are Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed’s Shola Lynch on Olympic sprinter Mary Decker and Detropia’s Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady on the difficulty female athletes have landing lucrative endorsement deals.)
Sundberg and Stern, whose early films The Trials of Daryl Hunt and The Devil Came on Horseback established them as dogged filmmakers with a keen eye for the human cost of social issues — they also did Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and “30 for 30″‘s Knuckleball — so they’re a perfect match for the story of the female reporters who broke through the barriers keeping them from doing postgame interviews in the teams’ locker rooms.
Given that this is largely a story about women not getting access — Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke was left to cool her heels in the hallway for nearly two hours after the Yankees won the 1977 World Series, then tried vainly to score a quote from a worn-out Reggie Jackson as he brushed past her — there’s not much archival footage to work with, but the subject’s memories are keen enough that the pictures form anyway. (Ludtke subsequently sued commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and won.) Lesley Visser, then with the Boston Globe, recalls that when she finally scored a press pass entitling her to enter the New England Patriots’ domain, she flipped it over and read the text on the back: “This badge will not be honored if presented by a woman or a child.”
The degree of antagonism that women faced can be shocking — Lisa Olson, who covered the Patriots for the Globe after Visser moved on, was harassed by players who fondled themselves in front of her, allegedly called a “classic bitch” by team owner Victor Kiam, and, after the NFL opened an investigation into the incident, received death threats and had her tires slashed. But what’s equally shocking is the boldness with which the men who ran the teams and the leagues, and in some cases the female journalists’ colleagues, publicly advanced arguments that today seem preposterous beyond belief. New York Post writer Maury Allen said that “the impact of women in sports will diminish the joy of the sport…. The athletes will become very, very inhibited, and I think that will be a detrimental thing to everybody’s entertainment.”
Those attitudes persist, of course: Check the comments on ESPN’s page for the film. Given that Let Them Wear Towels is produced by a sports network, it’s not surprising it ends on triumphant note, or that it’s joined on their site by a branded video featuring one of their reporters. (Ask Erin Andrews how she feels about women’s advancement in the field.) But the fact that ESPN’s using their female basketball analyst as a selling point it itself a marker of progress, a sign that female sports fans can be flattered like any others.
Read more: How Far Have Female Journalists Really Come?