Nine for IX film Let Them Wear Towels spotlights female sports journalists’ battle for equal access

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The passage above reflects the language on the back of a pro sports press credential, circa the 1970s, seen in Let Them Wear Towels, the Nine for IX documentary premiering tonight (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The film presents how female sports writers battled for equal access to male locker rooms, a crusade illustrated by vintage 1970s and 80’s-era footage, sound bites, photos and even editorial cartoons.

Towels also provides present-day interviews with pioneering journalists, including Claire Smith — a noted baseball writer for the likes of The New York Times before joining ESPN’s television production team in 2007 — and Michele Himmelberg, who before becoming a Disney public relations executive covered the San Francisco 49ers for the Sacramento Bee.

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg discuss the making of the film with Front Row:

What was the inspiration for the film? How did ESPN help with the development of the project?
Annie and I had just done a film called Knuckleball, which is a feature documentary about knuckleball pitchers. In that process, we got to know the ESPN team. When the Nine for IX series came up, they approached us to be one of the filmmaking teams.

Directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern
Directors Annie Sundberg (R) and Ricki Stern (ESPN)

One of the ideas they were thinking about was about women’s sports writers, and that was the one that we latched onto because we had just been in that world. It was intriguing to us because the topic was so broad . . . But after we did the research, we realized that it was this moment of [gaining] access into the locker room where the reporting had to happen that seemed to be the seminal moment in time for women sports writers. It became the thing we decided to focus on.

How did you assemble so many pioneering sports writers? Did you get everyone you pursued?
When you have so many voices in a film, it can kind of get muddied. The nice thing, and interesting thing is, they did all somewhat intersect. [Former Sports Illustrated writer] Melissa Ludtke’s case [she successfully challenged Major League Baseball for equal access after being barred from the Yankees locker room during the 1977 World Series] was something that had an impact on other sports writers.

We did try to interview Lisa Olson [a former Boston Herald sports writer who in 1990 was sexually harassed by some members of the New England Patriots]. She declined to be interviewed. I think she’s made it a policy to not speak about what had happened to her. We decided to tell her story anyway.

Baseball legends Steve Garvey and Tommy John are among those interviewed. How did you get their cooperation?
AS: Our excellent colleagues at ESPN helped us get in touch with Garvey and John, who were coming into New York for the MLB BAT (Baseball Assistance Team) dinner and we also tracked down peoples’ information with MLB’s help as well. We were unsuccessful in connecting with [former Yankees slugger] Reggie Jackson, and he was one interview we would have loved to include to hear his thoughts on Melissa Ludkte and the 1977 World Series.

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