'Let Them Wear Towels': Women Sports Reporters at Work

The idea that sports both reflect and transform their broader contexts is at the center of the documentary Let Them Wear Towels.

Let Them Wear Towels

Director: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Cast: Christine Brennan, Betty Cuniberti, Steve Garvey, Robin Herman, Michele Himmelberg, Melissa Ludtke, Claire Smith, Lesley Visser
Rated: NR
Studio: ESPN Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-07-16 (ESPN)
"It was about keeping women out in general -- out of traditionally male boardrooms and law offices and medical practices. Out of police ranks and firehouses, out of the Armed Forces, out of Congress. Out of power."

-- Robin Herman

"You never are surprised by it. You are saddened by it. It peeled back a layer for real ugliness." Claire Smith was inspired to become a sports writer by her mother, she says, in particular by her mother being an "avid Dodgers fan because of Jackie Robinson." Smith grew up being a Dodgers fan too, she remembers, and when she had the chance to write for the New York Times, the first black woman to cover sports for the paper, she was thrilled, but also apprehensive. And she has been saddened by the fear and meanness she's encountered.

Back in the olden days -- say, the late '70s -- Smith and other women journalists faced resistance as they tried to do their work, not only from men in their own industry, but also from the men they were assigned to cover. Still, Smith says she was inspired by sports and by baseball in particular: "Baseball mirrors American society," she says, "Only in my mind, it was always ahead of American society."

This idea, that sports both reflect and transform their broader contexts, is at the center of the documentary Let Them Wear Towels, premiering on 17 July on ESPN. And as much as racism or homophobia might be addressed or challenged by sports, so too misogyny was and also remains a dilemma in the multiple industries and populations represented by sports in the US and elsewhere. As Smith suggests, baseball and other sports can certainly be "ahead of the society," much like the American military might have been "ahead" with regard to race integration. But still, some political and cultural anxieties linger, anxieties that typically have to do with power.

This is another insight articulated in Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's compelling, inspiring documentary. Even as Title IX was passed in 1972, and even women writers filed class action suits at Newsweek, Time, and the New York Times, among other publications, many doors remained closed -- sometimes illegally and often maliciously. Not surprisingly, as Robin Herman puts it, "The closed door of the locker room… was very symbolic. It was a woman trying to get into a man's world, trying to break down a barrier into an all-male inner sanctum. And so," she concludes, "the establishment was threatened on many fronts." Here the film includes a choice selection of men feeling and openly expressing their fears of that threat. The New York Post's Maury Allen says women don't belong "where the athletes are," and Bowie Kuhn protests that the men need "some reasonable privacy," and moreover, "We don’t think it's really fair to the rest of the press and we also don’t think its fair to a lot of our fans who would have great reservations about this."

Such nonsensical handwringing -- displayed here in vintage footage, featuring long sideburns and wide ties -- indicates the stakes men have in what's familiar and what provides their privilege. The resistance was frequently framed as a concern for "privacy," and a worry that women only wanted to see sweaty men's naked bodies. Sheryl Flatow explains, "The misconception was that somehow, you were entering into this really overtly sexual place. This has to be one of the one of the most unsexy, disgusting places you can be," she says, as the film shows a series of photos of naked bottoms at yucky close range. Christine Brennan describes what you're looking at: "it's hot and cramped and sweaty, smelly and awful, and damp and close and messy and 85 degree, humidity-filled pressure cooker of a room, the antithesis of excitement, a fun place to be."

While this seems obvious, the so-called sanctity of the locker room was never really about men protecting access to their bodies or even their language and misogynistic stories; it was about privilege, about keeping women out. The women writers represented a shakeup of presumptions elsewhere in the culture during the 1970s and '80s. Most were in their 20s at the time, fresh off of college paper gigs, sometimes invested in their subjects (like Smith) and sometimes assigned to cover sports they didn't know much about: Herman and Flatow took up the NHL, "definitely the fourth" of the four major sports, studied the rule book and asked questions that male reporters might not ask, for fear of looking "ignorant."

While it may be true, as Jane Gross recalls, that some women reporters took a different approach to questions and players ("We were less interested in whether a pitch was high and inside than in 'How did you feel when this or that happened'?"), all of them needed access to players to do their jobs. "I needed quotes," says more than one interviewee, and the various leagues had various views on women's access. While Kuhn did his best to keep women out for as long as he could, the NHL was more open to change, as were younger players in all the leagues. The MLB had different rules for the American and National Leagues (and yes, the NL held out against change longer, being "more like the like Soviet Union," allowing each team to make its own decision on the matter). Smith recalls being "pushed out literally" of the Padres' locker room in 1984; when Steve Garvey saw what happened and came out of the locker room to give her an interview, she was so moved -- and so impressed -- that she started crying." You have to stop crying," he told her. "You have a job to do." Garvey (rather infamously the father of several children with several women), went on not only to help Smith do her job that day, but also wrote a letter of protest to the Padres in order to force a change. "We had to do something that had some substance," he says now, as the team had been "branded" as backwards. When Peter Ueberoth came on as MLB Commissioner that year, he "walked into a firestorm," and duly ordained that women could come into all locker rooms in the league.

As such change is so slow to come, Let Them Wear Towels is full of stories from women like Smith, who were harassed in a number of ways. And so, as much as the women were averse to becoming "the story," as the New York Times' Lawrie Mifflin puts it, at times they were, as they or their papers filed suits against sports entities, whether teams or leagues. The headlines in favor of access were met by campaigns against access, and quite specifically, against women more generally -- these means ran from editorial cartoons, to full-on headline stories to bad behaviors in locker rooms and in the hallways outside locker rooms.

It's heartening to see that women reporters have access, now, even if so many are still doing sideline and color stories on TV. Certainly, some of the most bracing and insightful writing on sports currently is by women, and many women mentor and support one another in the field. but still, the numbers of women in that field remain small, compared to men. For all the inroads and advances since these olden days, it's important to assess accurately where we are. Women do sideline or color reporting for the NFL or baseball, but apart from Doris Burke (occasionally) with the NBA, there aren't many of them "in the booth" for major league men's sports, even as men regularly report on or coach designated "women's sports." ESPN has made strides toward more fully "integrated" broadcasting teams -- there's something to be said for visuals as an impetus to integrate. If sports is a way to think about the world beyond, a mirror and a way to move "ahead, " it's clear that everyone still has jobs to do.


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