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A Level Playing Field? 'Nine for IX' Highlights Women in Sports

By Agnes Varnum

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Title IX statute of the Education Amendments of 1972. The Department of Justice states, "Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity." The legislative intent was to eliminate discrimination in higher education, but the law had the added benefit of applying to public school activities. By 1975, the effects rippled out to sports programs in schools and with it, the lives of women and girls across America were changed forever.

ESPN Films and espnW are honoring the legacy of Title IX with a documentary series of nine films, Nine for IX, airing Tuesdays from July 2 to August 27 on ESPN. The series showcases a tapestry of women's sports stories from the last 40 years, as told by nine female filmmakers. Inspired by ESPN's award-winning—yet male-dominated—30 for 30 series, Libby Geist, associate director of development for ESPN Films and Nine for IX producer, explains, "I think what interested me particularly was not just the triumphant, happy stories that usually surround Title IX, but realizing that we now, 40 years later, have so many stories. We now rival men's sports in terms of history and characters."

I was born in 1975 and was not much of an athlete myself, so I didn't take advantage of the sports programs available to me, but my mom did introduce me to figure skating. I spent the 1980s worshiping Katarina Witt as she skated to Olympic gold in two separate games, 1984 in Sarajevo and 1988 in Calgary, with World and European championships in between, all of which were televised to my suburban New Jersey home. We were addicts for figure skating, the way other families worship football or basketball.

"I'm really excited that ESPN has decided to create a series that highlights the talents of women athletes and women directors," says filmmaker Jennifer Arnold via e-mail. "Sport and film are both industries filled with inequality. The way this series explores that disparity is interesting." Arnold and co-director Senain Kheshgi's film The Diplomat goes beyond the beauty and athleticism of the young East German to explore how Katarina Witt's career was intertwined with the Cold War politics of the time. "Sport was used to show political might by both capitalist and communist governments," says Arnold. "Katarina was one of the few athletes that became immensely popular on both sides of the divide." Witt's 1988 medal was the key to her freedom and a tipping point for communism as the predominant political system in Eastern Europe.


Katarina Witt, subject of Jennifer Arnold and Senain Khesgi's The Diplomat, which airs August 6 on ESPN as part of its Nine for IX series. Courtesy of ESPN Films


Each of the other 50-minute films of Nine for IX weaves a different thread from the rise of women in sports: Venus Williams' suit for equal pay at Wimbledon (Venus VS; Dir.: Ava DuVernay); a portrait of University of Tennessee's Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history (Pat XO; Dirs.: Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters); a reunion of the 1999 US Women's World Cup champion team (The '99ers; Dir.: Erin Leyden); the death of a free diver attempting a world record (No Limits; Dir.: Allison Ellwood); the commoditization of female athletes (Branded; Dirs.: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady); women journalists in the locker room (Let Them Wear Towels; Dirs.: Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern); a dramatic accident during an Olympic track event (Runner; Dir.: Shola Lynch); and the on-court triumphs and off-court struggles of WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes (Swoopes; Dir.: Hannah Storm).


Basketball coach Pat Summitt, subject of Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters' Pat XO, which airs July 9 on ESPN's Nine for IX. Courtesy of ESPN Films


The history of women filming sports goes back to 1936, when Adolf Hitler hired Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will) to film the Berlin Olympics. The result, Olympia, inspired modern sports photography, using slow motion, tracking cameras and seductive visuals of bodies in motion. That same year, a female German high jump champion and Jew, Gretel Bergmann, was denied the opportunity to compete in the games, despite having tied the national record in the event. The Nazis instead entered a transgender male, who failed to win a medal.

Women in sports have come a long way, and women behind the camera, particularly in documentary, have enjoyed success too. "It's important to us to not just find a great story but to make sure that the right filmmaker is telling that story," Geist notes. "We thought there was no way there was anything we haven't heard about Venus [Williams]. But when Ava told us about the equal pay issue and her fight at Wimbledon, and spoke so eloquently about how important that was to her, we thought it was a really nice fit."

Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Shola Lynch, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, Alison Ellwood, Lisa Lax, Jennifer Arnold and Nancy Stern Winters are names known to readers of this magazine for their award-winning documentaries. Robin Roberts, Hannah Storm, Erin Leyden, Senain Kheshgi and Julie Foudy are long-time producers with extensive television credits, and Ava DuVernay, winner of the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature, is the relative newcomer to the nonfiction scene. The series is executive-produced by media mavens Jane Rosenthal and Robin Roberts.


Sheryl Swoopes, subject of Hannah Storm's Swoopes, which airs July 30 on ESPN's Nine for IX. Courtesy of ESPN Films


To find new talent, the producers at ESPN Films need look no further than their eight-year relationship with Tribeca Film Festival, which has given executives a bird's-eye view of the independent filmmaker pool each year and an eye for telling stories that deviate from standard cable format. "When most people think of ESPN, they think of highlight reels, they think statistics and Sports Center, but these are so far from that," Geist maintains. "We're really proud of letting the filmmakers find the style themselves."

 "Katarina liked that the Nine for IX series highlights women," Arnold notes. "She also mentioned that she never thought of herself as a woman skater, just a skater. Her goal was to be the best, to entertain her audience and to push herself. I'd say the same. I want women and girls to come away from the film excited to talk about the story. I hope the men feel the same way."

The ESPN Films team got a nod to the series, winning Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival for Coach, by Bess Kargman. Executive-produced by Whoopi Goldberg, the film chronicles C. Vivian Stringer, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as the first to lead three different schools to the NCAA Final Four.

Agnes Varnum is the director of events at The Texas Tribune.