“Let Them Wear Towels” tells the stories of female sports reporters

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Title IX, ESPN announced last year that it would be putting together nine documentaries about women in sports. This week it is airing Let Them Wear Towels about women reporters and their struggle to gain access to men’s locker rooms so that they could do their jobs.

The documentary is interesting. The hour limit is the only negative I saw with it since there were stories it mentions that deserve an hour of their own, like Melissa Ludtke suing the commissioner of Major League Baseball for access to the locker room after being denied access when she covered the World Series. There clearly was much more depth to that story and they do a fine job of giving the broad strokes but the reporters in the documentary clearly have stories to tell, but in this framework not nearly enough time. But that is my only complaint with it.

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These women reporters came at the right time and are fascinating people I would have loved to get to know better. Newspapers were hit with class action lawsuits and were ordered to hire women into their sports departments. The atmosphere in the country was one of change in sports and women’s rights, symbolized by the Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The locker rooms in professional sports became another battleground.

The media sexualized the locker room in a way that is hilarious for anyone who has spent any time in a locker room. It’s an inherently unsexy place, but the idea that women were infiltrating this sacred male space was more than many people could handle. So the reporters were barred. Sometimes by entire leagues, sometimes by single teams. It was interesting to hear about younger players accepting women in the locker room more easily because they just assumed that when you made it to the show, women reporters were part of the deal.

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Another thing that struck me were the allies. These women needed help to do their jobs whether it was another reporter handing over quotes when women were kept out or by having a player, like Steve Garvey, come out of the locker room to answer questions when a reporter wasn’t allowed in. It was unfair and infuriating to have to ask a colleague or a player for help to get the job done when they should have been able to do it for themselves. But, until they were able to change the policies, I was still struck by these stories of help and camaraderie among competing reporters and some of the players.

These women endured a lot from players, coaches, and the leagues themselves to get access, get answers, and get the story. These are women who endured death threats, heinous taunts, and hate mail to do their jobs and to pave the way for every Erin Andrews or Pam Oliver we see on our televisions now. This and the other Nine for IX documentaries are airing on ESPN. This one is well worth an hour of your time.

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