New ESPN documentary series turns focus to women's sports

Sunday July 7, 2013

Title IX, the 1972 legislation banning sex discrimination in federally financed education, may have revolutionized women's sports in America, but sports journalism hasn't exactly kept up. Hence the existence of the new documentary series "Nine for IX," which began Tuesday on ESPN.

When ESPN introduced the series "30 for 30" in 2009 -- 30 sports documentaries honoring this cable channel's 30th anniversary -- it became a success, winning a Peabody Award and spawning further series that have brought the total number of films under the "30 for 30" umbrella (not counting shorts) to more than 50.

Someone must have noticed, however, that of all those films, only three have been about women ("Unmatched," about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; "Marion Jones: Press Pause," about the disgraced track-and-field star; and "Renie," about transsexual tennis player Renie Richards). So now we have the separate but unequal "Nine for IX," nine documentaries by and about women supposedly celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which passed more than a year ago.

It would be nice to report that the series is equal in quality, at least, to "30 for 30," but it comes out of the blocks slowly with "Venus VS.," a celebration of tennis player Venus Williams that never generates much feeling, despite having one of the most compelling athletes of the last two decades as its subject.

The director of the documentary, Ana DuVernay, rounds up reporters, tennis executives, scholars and politicians to talk about Williams' game-changing career and particularly her campaign for equal prize money at Wimbledon. Former stars like Evert and Tim Henman are seen in embarrassing film clips defending the practice of lower payouts for women.

None of Williams' family members and few fellow players overall are heard from, though, and her own interview segments are short and bland. Add in the machine-gun pace -- perhaps a response to the short running time, 50 minutes, not counting commercials -- and the result is a flat and impersonal chronicle.

Things look up considerably this Tuesday, with Nancy Stern Winters and Lisa Lax's "Pat XO," which is similarly hagiographic but has the charm, poignancy and personality that "Venus VS." lacked. It manages to cover the life and career of celebrated University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt in the same 50 minutes, without feeling rushed.

The directors made the potentially problematic decision to have Summitt's son, Ross Tyler, narrate the film and interview his mother. He proves to be capable, restrained and moving, a partial yet cleareyed adjutant for Summitt, whose appearances in the film give little sign of the early-onset Alzheimer's that was diagnosed in 2011. A long roster of administrators, assistant coaches and former players -- including stars like Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Michelle Marciniak -- provide pungent, sometimes hilarious testimony on Summitt's iron will and harrowing competitiveness.

Especially entertaining, or frightening, are scenes of Summitt delivering locker room speeches and dispensing no-nonsense instructions during timeouts: "If you don't deny the high post, you may have to walk home today. You with me?"

Future installments examine the experiences of female reporters working in male locker rooms, and the depressing tale of the death of free-diver Audrey Mestre.

The season ends Aug. 27 with "Branded," about the ways female athletes are marketed sexually.


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