In my house growing up, sports had its own language, and to the uninitiated, it probably sounded nonsensical. Five-yard slant. In the zone. Touch ’em all. Hat trick. Box out. Blitz. Throwing grapefruits. Onions. Plus my dad’s favorite piece of basketball advice, “just take the pill to the hole.”
Yet even as a native speaker, I still felt like an outsider to my beloved sports. At the time, professional athletes in the major four sports -– football, basketball, baseball, and hockey -– were men, and in my mind, even the people authorized to have an opinion on sports were men. Luckily, this idea wasn’t practiced in my family, which encouraged me not only to play sports but freely express my views. However, sports pages and my local news channels reinforced to me on a daily basis that women didn’t have a place in sports journalism.
Sports journalism was, at that time, still a tough place for a woman to make her name, because even though there were women covering major sports across the country, they often weren’t allowed in one place they needed to be for the best quotes and access: the lockerroom. The long fight for equal access to the lockerroom — and the ability to practice sports journalism — is the subject of Let Them Wear Towels, the latest ESPN Films documentary scheduled to air at 8 p.m. tonight as part of the network’s Nine for IX series celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX.
A woman’s name on a sports byline always piqued my interest, and a turning point came for me when I saw a woman broadcasting on ESPN. I felt my calling. I used to tell people when they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, “I want to be Hannah Storm, but….” Storm was a stand-out sports anchor and reporter for CNN, NBC, and ESPN who covered Major League Baseball, the Olympics, and the NBA and later did play-by-play for the WNBA. For me, though, there was always that “but,” because I saw her and the other female sports reporters as an aberration. They did it, but could I? I feared that I was setting myself up for failure.
I distinctly remember making the decision in college to follow my other passion, politics, rather than sports. The calculation was that it would be easier to pay my dues in politics. And who could blame me? Growing up, I had to be twice as tough as the boys to play in the neighborhood pickup games. I took my school’s athletic director to task when it was painfully obvious that the boys’ teams were getting better equipment. I certainly wasn’t sheltered from the sting of sexism in this arena.
So you can imagine why I felt a pang of regret while watching Let Them Wear Towels during a premier screening hosted by the Center for American Progress. Let Them Wear Towels features several female sports journalists, pioneers in their field, telling their stories about gaining access to the locker room. Claire Smith, Lesley Visser, and Melissa Ludtke, to name a few, recount how they were at best required to wait outside of the locker room — often missing out on the big quote — and at worst were flashed, called lewd names, and forcibly removed by misogynistic players. In many cases, victories only came after their newspapers filed lawsuits against the teams.
When I initially made my decision, I wasn’t naive enough to think that the political world was a bastion of gender equality, but witnessing women both in positions of political power and reporting on the daily events in D.C. showed me it was possible. And while I’m perfectly content with my career in politics, a part of me wonders if I would have chosen the same path had I seen this documentary in college.
Women still have a long journey toward true equality, and politics and sports journalism are indicative of that reality. While it’s the most in our history, only 20 of the 100 U.S. senators are women. Female sports journalists often report from the sidelines during NFL games, but they’ve yet to call a game from announcers’ booth. Sadly for women in general, the gender pay gap still persists, with women across occupations making only 77 cents to every dollar that a man earns.
Moving toward equality will take a mixture of policy, the judicial process, persistence, and talented, strong women willing to pave the way. But don’t underestimate the power of a visual. Something clicked in my brain after seeing Hannah Storm on ESPN. Now little girls live in a world where Lindsay Czarniak is broadcasting the news on ESPN, Christine Brennan’s writing is featured in USA Today, Doris Burke is calling men’s basketball games, and Suzy Kolber is reporting from the NFL sidelines. Just by doing their jobs — and incidentally what they love — they’re making a world of difference. And Let Them Wear Towels will impact girls and women out there now the way it could have impacted me when I was choosing which career path to follow.