Let Them Wear Towels looked like one of the most intriguing documentaries on the schedule when Nine For IX was announced back in February. It gets at one of the key moments in the transition to fair access for female journalists in sports writing: New England Patriots players harassing Lisa Olson in their locker room in 1990. What’s important about it is what the documentary spends 50 minutes getting to: how far female journalists had to wrench power out of the hands of men in order to do their job, and how ridiculous it was for Olson to suffer the scorn of the legendarily tolerant (sarcasm) Boston sports fan base to the point where she fled to Australia to restart her career. But instead of taking that event and analyzing it in light of the still-not-unanimous idea that women have the right to do their job just like male sports writers, Let Them Wear Towels decides to engage in Women In The Locker Room 101, giving a history lecture instead.
As has often been the case with episodes of 30 For 30, Let Them Wear Towels takes subject matter that could be fascinating when presented in a more structurally compelling fashion and instead chops it up into segmented summaries. The opening is a overly long introduction to the lawsuits that led to slightly more widespread female employment in sports sections, and it gives the women interviewed their opening statements. Michele Himmelberg, Jane Gross, and especially Melissa Ludtke make great impressions and have plenty of anecdotes. If this were a story-swap between charismatic female journalists talking shop about the old days, it would be worthwhile. But it’s a mish-mash of pioneering female sportswriters recounting their early days in newspapers one by one, from how they made it onto the staff at their paper to their big moments of realization that the boys still wouldn’t let them get into the tree house (yes, that metaphor is used during the documentary).
This is a basic first step that a lot of people still need—a history lesson on women working in professional sports. But there is a more immediate, pressing issue, that women still have barriers placed on their careers, pigeonholed into certain kinds of broadcasting, relegated to sideline reporting or providing play-by-play for fringe sports—and the same goes for the writers. Many female sports journalists recount getting the hockey beat because it was the fourth of the major sports (does that mean they would be relegated to covering the MLS now?) and getting berated by older-generation athletes who were against letting women into the profession entirely.
To back up a second—it should be clear to everyone that having reporters in a locker room at all is senseless. Let the players change, shower, unwind, and then go through the mandatory rigmarole to give out quotes. But deadlines are deadlines, people want to finish their job and write their article and get out, so in the demand for a quick turnaround, entering the locker room is a sacrifice everyone makes. It seems important to note that this whole issue of equal access shouldn’t exist this way, because there should be no access no matter who is reporting. It’s a locker room, it’s gross and undesirable, and nobody should have to go in there in order to do his or her job as a journalist. This is a point Let Them Wear Towels makes in passing, but it makes it by having all the different interviewees gross out about the locker r smell instead of calmly stating the rational point that men shouldn’t have to be there either, and it’s only the deadline (and a bit of a want of friendly connection to professional athletes) that presses anyone to enter that private space.
But this is the nature of the beast: journalists need access to players, and the athletes make enough money that they should be able to endure the discomfort of parroting out a few quotes for the beat writers to get game stories in on deadline. Each of the women experienced a moment where a crotchety old Neanderthal forcibly removed them from a locker room, cursed them out, or made it very clear they weren’t welcome in the locker room. But just as many have stories of the tide turning with the younger generation—guys who presumably realized they might have their own daughters, and those kids deserve the opportunity to be whatever they want to be with no artificially blocked career path.
Ludtke’s story of missing the 1977 Yankees/Dodgers World Series certainly holds interest, but it’s the same narrative as all the other women: struggle, push back against the morons, get backed into a corner, have the newspaper sue for access, and then deal with all the ridiculousness of locker room culture. But as the documentary shifts to Olson late in the film, it becomes clear that this is the important part of the story. What really deserves to be picked apart is the intricacy of how female writers are sexualized by the athletes and other male writers around them, that the idea of nudity and sex comes into the equation from male voices commenting on the subject instead of the idea of professionalism.
All of these women have worthy stories to share and deserve recognition for pushing the boundaries closer to where they belong, but locker room culture is still a big problem today—and the May 2nd episode of His And Hers with Michael Smith and Jemele Hill on the ESPN podcast network delved into the most recent backwards statement by Don Cherry. Although these women may be the unsung pioneers, the most compelling aspects of the still-ongoing saga of female sports journalists get set aside in favor of a simpler and less vital discussion.
- Last week’s Pat Summitt documentary was absolutely fantastic, with a finale that nearly had me in tears. She goes on my list of greatest college basketball coaches right behind John Wooden.
- The person who comes off looking like the worst backwards sexist in the entire documentary is Maury Allen, who tries to make the claim that athletes would feel more inhibited by women working in sports, and that it would “diminish their joy.” It’s a steaming pile of bullshit that poorly hides the fact that he just doesn’t want women infringing on his field.
- The story of Michele Himmelberg clashing with Bill Walsh over access serves as a reminder that while San Francisco progressed rapidly in social acceptance because of an influx of incredibly liberal people, the remaining older generation didn’t understand the newcomers and held tightly to more conservative beliefs. The generational divide in San Francisco before 1960 is a drastic one.