Neil Best leaves no stone unturned in the world of sports media.
'Venus Vs.' serves up 'Nine for IX' series
Even after all these years, Venus Williams, 33, values the opinion of her famously opinionated father, Richard. So she recently chose to watch a new documentary about her, “Venus Vs.,’’ by his side.
“I wanted him to be proud of me,’’ she said on a conference call to promote the film, which premieres Tuesday and begins ESPN’s summer-long “Nine for IX’’ series of documentaries by and about women. “He did not want to give me back the DVD. I think it’s beautiful. It brought back quite a lot of memories.’’
The primary focus is Williams’ pivotal role in the mid-2000s fight for equal prize money for women, especially at Wimbledon, linking her forever with activist players of the past, notably Billie Jean King.
“I have to say, I wasn’t planning on being that person,’’ she said. “I was the right person at the right time, I guess. It was just something I felt strongly about.’’
Williams said the film only made her appreciate King more for her earlier role in the battle for gender equality.
“Billie has touched not only my life but so many lives,’’ she said. “She’s one of a kind. You can’t really replicate another Billie . . . I’m not afraid to speak up and speak the truth. I think we have that in common.’’
The movie was directed by Ava DuVernay, who considered Williams the ideal documentary subject because of her hands-off approach.
DuVernay said after a screening of the film Monday that she was turned down for interviews almost universally by current and former male players, with the notable exception of John McEnroe.
Why did she think they declined to speak to her?
“I think it’s worth knowing but it’s not worth the focus of a conversation what the men think about this issue,’’ she said, “because it really doesn’t have anything to do with it.’’
The name “Nine for IX’’ was inspired by ESPN’s well-received “30 for 30’’ film series and the subject matter was inspired by last year’s 40th anniversary of Title IX, which revolutionized women’s sports in the United States.
Said Connor Schell, executive producer of ESPN Films, “In the same way that ‘30 for 30’ was inspired by ESPN’s 30th anniversary, but it wasn’t about it, this series is inspired by 40 years of Title IX and the changing face of women’s sports in America and trying to find really compelling narratives within those 40 years.’’
So why is it being shown in 2013, the 41st anniversary of Title IX? “It became less important for us to hit the actual date and more important to find and tell the right stories in the right way and that takes time,’’ Schell said.
The goal, he said, is “to bring women’s sports to life in a different way. So the hook we used was to go out and find the most compelling, qualified female storytellers who had something to say.’’
The long-term hope is to integrate more and more of those voices into the regular rotation of ESPN documentaries. “Absolutely,’’ Schell said. “I’m a big believer that diversity of storytellers is incredibly important.’’
If ESPN has ratings expectations for the series, it isn’t saying. But big ratings are not the point – and hardly ever are when it comes to documentaries.
“We set out to tell really, really good stories and tell important stories,’’ Schell said, “and as far as I’m concerned we’ve accomplished that. I hope it draws a big audience on Tuesday but there’s no ratings pressure on it.’’
“Nine for IX’’ will appear Tuesdays in July and August, and is executive produced by “Good Morning America’’ host and former “SportsCenter’’ anchor Robin Roberts along with Jane Rosenthal, a veteran film producer and a co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival, at which four “Nine for IX’’ entries were screened in April.
Rosenthal, 56, said her first job in the media business, while she still was a student at NYU, was working on “The NFL Today’’ at CBS as a production assistant.
“I didn’t realize I was the only female production assistant,’’ she said. Later she encountered other females in the sports media business, pioneering sports producers such as Joan Richman and Janis Delson.
“I didn’t know we were breaking ground,’’ Rosenthal said. “I just thought we were really good at what we did.’’
July 9 will bring one of the series’ highlights, “Pat XO,’’ produced by Roberts and directed by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters, identical twin sisters who grew up in Port Washington.
The film explores the life and career of Pat Summit through the voices of those who know her best, and also in her own voice, helped by her son, Tyler.
“Let Them Wear Towels’’ on July 16 recalls the fight for women sportswriters to gain access to sports locker rooms in the 1970s and ‘80s, featuring interviews with several pioneers among female sports journalists.
“For the first time for me in 40 years they made me feel that insecurity I had then, that nervousness,’’ Lesley Visser said, referring to Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, the filmmakers behind 2012’s “Knuckleball!’’
“They brought up stories that were not pleasant for me, but in an important way. I got physically thrown out of the Cotton Bowl locker room in 1980. I thought, ‘Oh it’s a new decade, everything’s going to be good here’ Then [Houston coach] Bill Yoeman yelled, ‘I don’t give a damn about the Equal Rights Amendment, I’m not having her in my locker room!’ You fight crying.’
“I went up to the roof of the Cotton Bowl and [fellow sportswriter] David Israel gave me all the quotes . . . It was like Blanche DuBois. You did depend on the kindness of strangers.’’
The July 23 film, “No Limits,’’ is a favorite among series executives and chronicles the disturbing tale of the deep-sea diving couple Pipin Ferreras and Audrey Mestre, the subjects of a classic Sports Illustrated feature 10 years ago.
Hannah Storm produced the July 30 film, “Swoopes,’’ about Sheryl Swoopes.
“At this stage of my life to dream of making films and have ESPN's support, that has been incredibly meaningful,’’ Storm said. “I came into it later in life. I’ve seen it all, I know everybody, so that’s good.’’
“Runner’’ on Aug. 13, is about the life and times of Mary Decker and is directed by Shola Lynch, a star runner herself in the mid-to-late 1980s at Hunter College High School in Manhattan and later at the University of Texas.
The film addresses Decker’s infamous fall in her 1984 Olympics showdown with Zola Budd. “That’s what people remember her for, which I think is a travesty,’’ Lynch said.
Rounding out the “Nine for IX’’ series is a 10th film, a short already available on line called “Coach’’ that focuses on Rutgers women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer.
The comedian Whoopi Goldberg is a producer. She appeared with Stringer at a screening Monday.
“I was ecstatic; I couldn’t believe it,’’ Stringer said of being approached for the project. “I was stunned. I think the series is important . . . I look at our ladies and where we’ve come [since 1972] and where we started from and you have to be excited about that.’’
Here is the complete “Nine for IX’’ schedule. For more information see the website espnW
July 2: Venus Vs. (Ava DuVernay)
July 9: Pat XO (Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern Winters; produced by Robin Roberts)
July 16: Let Them Wear Towels (Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern)
July 23: No Limits (Alison Ellwood)
July 30: Swoopes (Hannah Storm)
·Aug. 6: The Diplomat (Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi)
Aug. 13: Runner (Shola Lynch)
Aug. 20: The '99ers (Erin Leyden; produced by Julie Foudy)
Aug. 27: Branded (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady)