ESPN’s ‘Nine for IX,’ on women in sports

July 2, 2013
Venus Williams in 2007 at Wimbledon (AP) Venus Williams in 2007 at Wimbledon (AP)

So…It’s been 41 years since women’s sports began its great leap forward with the passage of Title IX, the federal higher education law guaranteeing female students equal access to college academics and oh, by the way, sports programs long available to men.

But the 1972 legislation hardly meant America’s vastly profitable male athletic establishment—pro as well as collegiate–rushed to embrace talented female players, coaches or even journalists. To get to the locker room, some women had to detour through the courtroom.

ESPN, the all-sports cable network, wants to make sure we don’t forget the old days with “Nine for IX,” female-directed documentaries that chronicle their best, and a few of their worst, moments as they fought to the top of their respective games.

The shows air Tuesday nights from July 2 through Aug. 27, covering subjects that are literally all over the map, from global legends to lesser-known bright lights, from women athletes expected to be both aggressive jocks and after-hours sex symbols to a basketball superstar who came out of the closet in 2005, when doing so might have been a career killer.

The series opens with tennis goddess Venus Williams—sitting out Wimbledon this week because of a back injury–who in 2007 finally pushed the All England Club into adopting prize money parity. That year, she got the same payout as Roger Federer.

Williams credits tennis legend Billie Jean King—who kicked the male chauvinist butt of Bobby Riggs in a match that inspired a generation of women athletes and sportswriters–for demanding American prize parity back in 1968, when women won just 37 cents for every dollar awarded to male champs.

Pat Summit, the NCAA’s winningest basketball coach, spent 38 years guiding the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers to 1,098 wins and just 208 losses before resigning in 2012 to deal with Alzheimer’s disease. That same day, her son Tyler became assistant coach of Marquette University’s women’s basketball team, and he does much of the talking about his mother.

In communist East Germany, before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall brought reunification with West Germany, we learn that champion figure skater Katarina Witt was spied upon, from the time she was 8, by the dreaded Stasi secret police, which amassed a 3,000 page file on her. French-born Audrey Mestre was the world-class free diver whose 2002 death in a deep-water accident has been blamed by some on her trainer-husband, who was said to resent her increasing success as his own career waned.

We follow runner Mary Decker’s blazing track career that never yielded an Olympic medal, including her infamous collision with Zola Budd, the barefoot Brit, that sent her tumbling to the ground in anguished pain. And we share the career highs and domestic dramas surrounding WNBA basketball great Sheryl Swoopes, dubbed the “female Michael Jordan,” who announced in 2005 she was gay.

There are also memorable ensemble casts.

Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Kirstine Lily drew 90,000 fans to the Rose Bowl and another 40 million U.S. viewers to TV sets as they beat China for the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

On a less triumphant note, women in several sports–Lolo Jones of track, field and bobsled fame; tennis great Chris Evert; volleyball pro/model/actress Gabrielle Reece and boxer Laila Ali among them—grapple with seeking respect for their athletic chops even while being marketed as hot babes in short skirts and cool clubs.

As an apologetic non-jock, I most closely related to the women sportswriters, who began breaking newsroom glass ceilings in the 1970s but were barred from locker rooms for another decade or more because their presence offended the aging poobahs of pro sports, players (or their wives and kids), and in some cases, their own journalistic rivals.

Melissa Ludtke of Sports Illustrated and her employer, Time Inc., successfully sued Major League Baseball after she was barred from the New York Yankees locker room. The Boston Herald’s Lisa Olson was so crudely harassed by some New England Patriots and so rattled by death threats from rabid hockey fans that she bolted the country for Australia. Other journos – including Claire Smith, Lesley Visser, Jane Gross and Christine Brennan – hung in there or moved on to other things, but today make the point that hot, smelly locker rooms had nothing to do with ogling naked men and everything to with job equality.

Oh, that.

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer and columnist specializing in politics, culture and design. She has also written for the New York Times, Town & Country, Washingtonian and More, and is at work on a memoir. Follow her @AnnieGroer.
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