More than four decades after the passage of Title IX, a quick spin through cable's sports channel lineup shows there's still a disparity between men and women in sports. "Nine for IX" – an ESPN documentary series that honors the legislation that mandated equal federal funding for men's and women's educational programs – including sports – seeks to address that gap.
"The notion of women being underrepresented in film as well as sports is a universal problem and something that is constantly being talked about but there's not a lot of action towards," says Libby Geist, a producer of the series. Women were certainly being underrepresented on "30 for 30" – the channel's series of sports documentaries. In its 51 films, only four have featured female directors and three female subjects. ESPN announced in February that it would be airing "Nine for IX," a series of nine, hour-long documentaries, focusing on female athletes with films directed by female filmmakers.
"When the [40th] anniversary came up of Title IX last year, it was a great motivation to say 'We've got to do something,'" says Geist, who also works on "30 for 30."
"Individually, these are all really great films and will be a great hour on ESPN. When you look at the whole nine, it really pieces together and shows a great history and a great example of moments of time and how far we've come."
The subject matter and tone range among the films. "Venus Vs.," which airs Tuesday, is about Venus Williams's crusade to end Wimbledon's practice of paying female tennis players less than men. "The idea that Venus Williams was able to overturn and change equal pay at Wimbledon in 2007 says a lot about how recent some of these changes have come about," Geist says.
The series will also examine the career of WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes in "Swoopes" and college basketball coach Pat Summitt in "Patty XO," among other female sports greats. Another film, "Branded," will examine the sexual stereotypes female athletes face in the media.
The producers also hope the series will introduce viewers to whole new sports entirely: "No Limits" will look at the dangerous sport of free diving.
"It's an obscure sport and it wasn't really anything I knew that much about, and any human being who pushes themselves to those limits is staggering to me," says Jane Rosenthal, who along with Robin Roberts, served as an executive producer for "Nine for IX."
The film explores not just the sport, but the tragic and controversial death of free diver Audrey Mestre, who overcame scoliosis to become one of the sport's brightest stars.
"We're not just doing triumphant stories," Geist says. "Now that 40 years have passed we've got out own history. We've got our own athletes, our own characters – good and bad."
Some critics have argued that the series inadvertently reinforces the barriers erected around women on the playing field. Travis Waldron at ThinkProgress writes, "[ESPN] shouldn't need a special anniversary to talk about women in sports and the challenges they still face. And it shouldn't need a special event to turn the cameras over to female directors."
However, Geist hopes that the series will bring more attention to women both in front of and behind the camera at ESPN.
"In the development of 'Nine for IX,' the relationships with female filmmakers, the research on female stories and athletes was incredibly extensive," she says. "I think going forward those relationships and stories and knowledge are going to be folded into '30 for 30' which is a huge win for everybody, including us."
"Nine for IX" begins Tuesday at 8:00 PM on ESPN and continues Tuesday nights through August.