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Barriers: New ESPN documentary shows how bad it was for early women sportswriters

After watching ESPN’s new documentary, Let Them Wear Towels (Tuesday, 8 p.m.), I realized just how clueless I was about the early struggles of women sportswriters.

To be fair, I didn’t start working the pro and college locker rooms until the mid-80s. Some of the women issues were resolved by then, and I also was very naive about most things.

Now I know. It was bad for pioneer women sportswriters. Much worse than I thought.

It all is documented in a terrific new film that is part of ESPN Nine for IX summer series highlighting women and sports. As I wrote previously, you need to make a point about watching this documentary.

Directed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, Let Them Wear Towels focuses mainly on the early struggles of women sportswriters trying to break into the male-dominated world of men’s sports.

Chuck Culpepper of Sports on Earth, a long-time colleague, had the same reaction I did after watching the film.

Hearing the stories of thickheaded restrictions and anecdotal humiliation from forerunners such as Melissa Ludtke, Lawrie Mifflin, Jane Gross, Betty Cuniberti, Robin Herman, Claire Smith and Lesley Visser, made me mull how eras can seem lunatic upon reflection.

The push back was considerable. Ludtke, a Sports Illustrated writer, had to sue baseball to gain access to the locker room.

“(Bowie Kuhn’s way) of handling it was to bar the door. Don’t let it happen on our watch,” Ludke said.

Many male sportswriters also weren’t welcoming of women.

There’s a vintage clip featuring long-time New York baseball writer Maury Allen. He said the presence of women sportswriters in locker room “would diminish the joys of sports. It would diminish the joy of the athletes. The athletes would become more isolated.”

I’m sure Allen would like to have that one back.

As a result of the ridiculous mindset, the early women sportswriters were forced to endure one humiliation after another. Ludtke told the story of being forced to wait outside the Yankee locker room after Reggie Jackson’s three homer World Series game in 1977. When he finally emerged, Reggie, who had done numerous interviews with the press at his locker, told Ludtke he was too tired to talk. Hence, the need for the lawsuit.

Other women sportswriters had similar experiences, leaving them frustrated about not being able to do their jobs.

Finally, common sense eventually prevailed and women gained access to the locker room. However, problems remained. The ugly incident involving the New England Patriots and Lisa Olson gets the full treatment. (More later on why Olson didn’t give a current interview for the film).

Women sportswriters, though, didn’t give in. They kept fighting to gain access and status. The Association for Women in Sports Media recently is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It is a testament to perseverance.

Today, nobody gives a second thought about seeing women in the press box. Many of them of bright and young, eager to dive into the fray. They likely had no idea what their predecessors went through.

It goes without saying that this is a must-watch film for them. I know I will be showing it in my journalism classes for many years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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