WOMEN, SPORTS & SOCIETY:


By Teryl Warren

In 1972, then-President Richard Nixon signed Title IX – a law that barred gender discrimination in all aspects of education in schools that receive federal aid – and, in the process, greatly expanded athletic opportunities for women.

In celebration of the 40thAnniversary of Title XI last year, cable network ESPN highlighted women who’ve had a major impact on the world of sports as athletes, coaches, broadcasters and the like.

That celebration continues this summer with Nine for XI – a spinoff of the network’s successful 30 for 30 documentary series – featuring nine compelling films showcasing both female athletes and female filmmakers.

“In both sports and in film women are under-represented,” producer and associate director of development for ESPN Films Libby Geist said. “Now is a great time to highlight women, and as a woman at ESPN, it’s great to know that our executives support us in our efforts to tell our stories.”

And for the telling of those stories, the network assembled a veritable dream team of female directors and producers. From rising stars like Sundance Best Director Award-winner Ava DuVernay and Free Angela director Shola Lynch to industry veterans like executive producers Jane Rosenthal, Robin Roberts and Whoopi Goldberg, Nine for XI’s talent behind the lens is as impressive as the star subjects seen onscreen. 

“[Hiring female filmmakers] was just an obvious fit,” Geist told us. “[At ESPN Films], we pride ourselves on being director-driven, so our sentiment was: ‘If we’re highlighting women in sports, let’s highlight women in film, as well.’”

It will come as no surprise to sports fans that icons such as tennis star Billie Jean King, legendary figure skater Katarina Witt and Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton are all featured in the Nine for XI films. Their accomplishments in their respective sports solidified their spots in history and made them all household names.  But what sets Nine for XI apart is the depth and social relevance of the content.  If you’re looking for a series of highlight reels, you’ve come to the wrong place.

The world of athletics has, and, perhaps always will be, an arena for social change.  From Jesse Owens’ dispelling of the “master race” myth at the Berlin Games in 1939 to Muhammad Ali’s vocal opposition of the Vietnam War in the 60’s, sports figures have often found themselves at the epicenter of significant social movements. In that spirit, several of the films in the Nine for XI series chronicle how women in sports have impacted society, as a whole.

Sheryl Swoopes

The series premiere, Venus vs. (airing July 2), examines the equal pay movement in professional tennis that – originally launched by Billie Jean King in the 1970’s – came full-circle when Venus Williams, three decades later, would champion the equal pay cause for the winners of both Wimbeldon and the French Open.

Labor issues are further explored in films like Let Them Wear Towels (airing July 16) which examines the experiences of female journalists working in the quintessential man’s domain: the locker room. 

“Throughout the series, we see topics being raised that are relevant across the board, beyond the world of sports,” Geist said. “[The fight for] female journalists to gain equal access to locker rooms is essentially a metaphor for women gaining access to jobs and for women, in general, getting the respect they deserve. Let Them Wear Towels is about a group of women who stood up for themselves and equality in the locker room, and who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. “

Other films in the series offer more intimate portraits of some of the sports world’s most beloved females. The short film Coach and the long form Pat XO offer inspiring and touching looks at two of college basketball’s most revered coaches – Vivian Stringer and Pat Summitt, respectively- through the eyes of family, friends, colleagues and admirers.  And Swoopes – helmed by award-winning journalist Hannah Storm – deftly capsulates the complex story of one of the founders of the Women’s National Basketball Association – Sheryl Swoopes.

The series closes out on August 27 with Branded – a candid look at the marketing and selling of female athletes – directed by the Academy Award-nominated team behind the documentary Jesus Camp – Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. From former “America’s Sweethearts” like Mary Lou Retton and Chris Everett to contemporary controversial beauties like Lolo Jones, Branded investigates the business of sports from both sides of the spectrum.

“Most of the salaries female athletes earn aren’t huge salaries, so endorsements become important revenue streams,” Geist shared. “In this film, we hear the women discuss what it means to be marketable, to represent a brand and the tension between what sponsors want and an athlete’s desire to stay true to herself.”

Libby Geist

From tragedies to triumph, public demonstrations and personal demons, ESPN Films’ Nine for XI is an unprecedented look at the myriad of women in professional sports and some of the challenges they face. Though part of a series, each film is unique in tone, style and offers an honest reflection of who we are, as people – whether athletes or fans, activists or followers.  Though set in the world of sports, far-reaching the series’ social relevance is, all at once, both timely and timeless.

“We think it’s really important to recognize that women have their own sports history now,” Geist said. “By highlighting the nine compelling stories representing different eras in women’s sports, so many great stories, we hope to show not only how far women have come, but to also show we’ve got a lot of change coming ahead.”


For more information about Nine for XI and a complete listing of the films, please visit:


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