ESPN’s ‘Nine for IX’ Series Features Disney Employee Who Paved the Way for Women Sports Journalists

One of ESPN’s latest initiatives, Nine for IX, features nine documentaries that tell incredible stories about women in sports, including Venus Williams’ fight for equal pay at Wimbledon, the history of Katarina Witt and her link with East Germany’s secret police and a look at Pat Summitt – college sports’ most successful coach ever. The series is inspired by the 40th anniversary of Title IX — the historic legislation that led to equal opportunity for women in sports.

The third documentary in the series, Let Them Wear Towels, debuts tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. Let Them Wear Towels examines the obstacles that faced women sports journalists as they fought to break in to the “boys club” of the professional sports locker room. Two of the pioneers featured in the film are Walt Disney Company employees — Claire Smith, ESPN’s baseball news editor, and Michele Himmelberg from Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. We had an opportunity to catch up with Michele about her experience.

We know you work for Disney – ESPN’s parent company. What is your reaction to the company bringing to light this piece of sports history?
I’m thrilled that ESPN is telling this story about women in sports journalism and Title IX. It speaks to one of the reasons I enjoy working for Disney – the heart of everything we do is meaningful storytelling. This story was part of my personal experience, and now it’s becoming part of historical narrative, showing how women brought their voices and perspectives to the world of sports. I’m especially happy that viewers are learning the true story about this legislation. Title IX opened so many doors for women, well beyond the playing fields. It empowered women to say they belonged in workplaces, in court rooms, in board rooms — any place where they had the talent to compete and excel. It was a radical and positive change.

Why were you excited to participate in ESPN’s Nine for IX series?
I feel honored to be part of Nine for IX, and so humble to be in the company of the great women who are in the films and who made the films. As a sports journalist, I covered the National Football League (NFL), the NBA, collegiate championships, the Olympic Games and it was all very exciting. One of my best experiences was my first job, covering women’s sports and this rather new thing called Title IX. I wrote about the best women golfers in the world and some of the all-time greats in women’s professional tennis. Watching those women compete and excel gave me confidence that I did belong, as a woman in the world of sports. I didn’t have to accept the label of ‘freak‘ just because I knew how to read a box score and liked football and was enthralled with how athletes played their games.

How does it feel to be recognized for your contribution to sports coverage?
It’s humbling because so many outstanding women made contributions to where we are today. I followed women who opened doors, and then my battle ensured women had equal access to post-game interviews in the NFL. Per sports tradition, those interviews were held in the locker room; not my favorite place to hang out, but it’s where you had to be.

You have to remember, this was before the Internet, before Twitter and Instagram. The way fans learned about their favorite teams was largely from sportswriters, in the next day’s newspaper.  Post-game quotes were the heart of your story. If you couldn’t get quotes and observe the emotions of the players because you weren’t in the locker room, you couldn’t compete.

It was also the early 1980s.  You just didn’t see women covering sports. It’s not like today where you see women reporting on all the big games and driving the conversation on ESPN. Fortunately, I was young and naïve, and I thought it was no big deal to be a female sportswriter. I just knew I loved my job and wanted to be good at it. That helped me survive a lot of verbal harassment and ridicule for wanting to do something so different.

What did you think of ESPN’s Claire Smith as a fellow female sports writing pioneer?
Claire Smith is one of the true gems – a remarkable person and sports journalist. She and I belong to an organization called AWSM, the Association for Women in Sports Media. AWSM is one of the good things that came out of those early trials with the locker room. Instead of trying to resolve issues as individuals, we came together and formed a group to speak with a unified voice. Together with newspaper editors, we changed league policies to ensure equal access for all reporters.  We wanted to open the doors for more women and it’s so exciting today to see that happening. There are now hundreds of women in sports journalism, at all levels, and I’m cheering for all of them.

To hear more of Michele’s story and the stories of other women who led the way in sports journalism, tune in to Let Them Wear Towels tonight. You can also follow the Nine for IXseries on Twitter at @30for30 and @espnW, and join the conversation with the hashtag#LetThemWearTowels.