Playing off its popular “30 for 30″ series of sports documentaries, ESPN Films this week rolled out “Nine For IX,” a series of nine documentaries that will celebrate the legacy of Title IX by telling the stories of female athletes and examining many of the issues women in sports still face today. Its films will explore racial and sexual identities of women in sports, the exploitation of female athletes as sex objects, discrimination faced by female reporters in male lockerrooms, and other issues that aren’t necessarily unique to women athletes, like disability, homosexuality, and the glory and heartbreak that come just from playing sports.
As great as the Nine for IX series will be and as positive as it is that ESPN is shining a bright light on the issues that affect women in sports every day, though, the series somehow manages to reinforce that there is still a wall between the games women play and those played by men. All nine films in the Nine for IX series, which will air from July 2 to August 27 on ESPN, were directed by women. And obviously, all nine are about women. Compare that to the 30 for 30 series, now in its third season. Just four of its 51 films have featured a female director or co-director, and just three have told the stories of female athletes. None of the series’ 10 short features that has aired or is in production is about women, and only one was directed by a woman.
What Nine for IX makes evident is that both stories about women in sports and female directors are readily available. Venus Williams beating racial discrimination, Audrey Mestre overcoming disability, and the U.S. Women’s National Team’s 1999 World Cup victory aren’t just great women-in-sports stories, they are great sports stories. They aren’t just triumphs of great women, they are triumphs of great athletes. The Nine for IX series is aiming to produce the same sort of informative, humanizing, and provocative films 30 for 30 is known for, and it is using the same type of high-quality directors that have made 30 for 30 a success so far, which only makes it more baffling that stories about women in sports and films directed by women have been so absent from the series since it began in 2010.
It seems that ESPN has determined, perhaps unintentionally, that the best way to tell stories about women in sports and the best way to utilize female directors is to tie them to a transformative event that will broadly appeal to women. But while ESPN has taken many positive steps to boost women’s sports and the roles of women in sports, and while it is rightly celebrating the success of Title IX, it shouldn’t need a special anniversary to talk about women in sports and the challenges they still face. And it shouldn’t need a special event to turn the cameras over to female directors. That it does serves as yet another indication of how far women in the world of sports have to go, even four decades after Title IX became law.
I originally wrote that only two of ESPN’s 51 “30 for 30″ films told the stories of female athletes. There have been three. Season One featured “Unmatched,” about the tennis rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and “Marion Jones: Press Pause,” about the Olympic track star who went to prison for using steroids. Season Two’s “Renee” was the story of transsexual tennis player Renee Richards, who entered the 1977 U.S. Open.