10 Women’s Sports Stories That Would Make Great Films

This story was originally published on May 20, 2016.

I don’t watch a lot of sports, but I sure watch a lot of movies about sports. Did I grow up watching Serena slay Grand Slam tournaments with my tennis-loving grandfather? I sure did. Do I join my friends to watch the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs? Of course: It’s Dame Time. I might not rise to the level of “certified sports fan” (Do I know who won the most recent World Series? No.) but from Pumping Iron to Dogtown and Z-Boys, Baseball to Hoop Dreams, I’ve seen more sports documentaries than your average season ticket holder at any pro-sports arena in all the land.

For the past few years, my appetite for the epic dramas and myth-status heroes these movies provide has been sated primarily by ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, a collection of sports documentaries originally conceived to celebrate the sports network’s 30th anniversary. Premiering in October 2009, the series features three “volumes” of 30 episodes each, and it is still in production today. The series covers memorable but often largely forgotten events across a wide range of sports, featuring some of the most engaging storytelling on TV today. It’s a top-notch production featuring directing greats like Albert Maysles and John Singleton, among many others. While not all the films are winners (I’m looking at you, There’s No Place Like Home), the success of others, like Benji and Once Brothers, cannot be denied.

I love 30 for 30. But I want it to be even better. I think 30 for 30 could be stronger if it threw more films about women in the mix. So far, the network has released two full volumes of the regular series, featuring 30 films each, and only three of those stories centered on female athletes. Two of those films looked at depressing trajectories, focusing on the controversies that ensnarled runner Marion Jones and ice skater Tonya Harding. Looking into the crews behind the films is also disheartening: The series has had 71 directors so far, and only five have been women. The films already released from the current third volume are all about men as well, including a five-part miniseries about O.J. Simpson. Now don’t get me wrong, I will definitely watch O.J.: Made in America. But if 30 for 30 can dedicate 10 hours to Simpson, a man whose story they previously touched on in their 2010 film June 17th, 1994 and whose life was just months ago the subject of the TV miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, surely they can include more films about women into their never-ending program.

To be fair, it’s not as if ESPN hasn’t dedicated some time to documentary films about women. One 30 for 30 short told the story of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her founding of the Special Olympics, and in 2013, the network released Nine for IX, a series of short documentaries about female athletes by female filmmakers to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passing of Title IX. Those films are great, but I’m still left with questions. Why so few films about female athletes? Why are the ones we have so short?

I figure the bigwigs at ESPN must just need some suggestions. Don’t worry, 30 for 30 producers, I got you! Here are 10 storylines that would be great for ESPN’s next volume of the 30 for 30 series. If you need 20 more, just let me know. I’ll look for my check in the mail.

Ronald Reagan with Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 U.S. Olympics (Wikimedia)

1. Defend the Nation

In 1984, two teenagers named Mary Lou Retton and Ecaterina Szabo faced off at the Olympics in the individual all-around gymnastics competition. It become one of the most memorable events of the entire Olympic Games that year. Though they grew up in very different worlds, on opposite sides of the divide between the Eastern and Western Blocs, they shared a passion and a dedication to the sport and artistry of gymnastics, both rising to the top of their fields in their respective countries and meeting on the world stage. And as if competing at such a high level at such a young age wasn’t enough pressure, Retton, representing the United States, and Szabo, representing Romania—the only Soviet Bloc country that didn’t boycott the Games that year—would come to embody Cold War tensions at the time. Their showdown would captivate world audiences and the outcome would go down as one of the most controversial wins in the history of Olympic gymnastics to date.

Ann Meyers Drysdale (UCLA)

2. Wrong League

Named after a chapter in Mad Seasons: The Story of the First Women’s Professional Baseball League, 1978-1981, Wrong League would tell the story of basketball legend and ESPN broadcaster Ann Meyers Drysdale who, in 1978, was torn between playing in the WNBA predecessor league, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL), and potentially becoming the first woman to play in the NBA, an organization that had discriminated against women since its inception. Meyers Drysdale, already a college and Olympic champion by the time she was offered a contract with the WPBL, effectively slighted the fledgling league when, instead, she signed a free-agent contract with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. But it was largely a publicity stunt for the Pacers: Meyers Drysdale’s tryouts for the team would end after three rounds, leaving her looking toward the WPBL once again for opportunity and support. But would the league and the players accept her back? Tune in to this yet-to-be-made film to find out. 

Janet Guthrie (Photo courtesy of JanetGuthrie.com)

3. Janet and the Lightning

Janet Guthrie was already a pilot and an aerospace engineer when she decided to follow her passion for race car driving instead. Guthrie spent the next 20 years proving herself on the track and rising up the ranks. But it was when she was first introduced to her 1976 Lightning, built by NASCAR team owner Rolla Vollstedt, that she would take a crack at winning some of the biggest competitions in the sport—including the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, and the Winston Cup, among others. Despite widespread ridicule and harassment and a severe lack of sponsorships, Guthrie would eventually earn respect among her racing peers, becoming one of the sport’s most influential and celebrated drivers and winning a spot in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Janet and the Lightning would examine Guthrie’s ascendance in the sport of race car driving via the beloved cars she drove throughout her career. 

Marion “Joe” Carstairs (Wikimedia)

4. Fastest Woman on the Water

Throughout her life, Marion “Joe” Carstairs challenged assumptions and expectations of her proper place in society. An out-and-proud lesbian in a time when British women were still seen as extensions of their husbands’ property, the Standard Oil heir took advantage of her immense wealth and privilege and traveled the world, dated some of the world’s most beautiful and famous women, and, for a brief time in her illustrious life, became the world’s top female speedboat racer. Throwing herself wholeheartedly into the sport, Carstairs spent significant resources on attempting to build a motorboat capable of winning her the Harmsworth Trophy, the highest prize in motorboat racing at the time, and bringing her the respect of her competitors and detractors alike. Fastest Woman on the Water would explore Carstairs’s larger-than-life persona and the symbol of athletic validation that thrice eluded her. 

(Photo source: Newspaper headlines featured in Runners World)

5. Society in Chaos

Before the early 1970s, women were barred from participating in the Boston Marathon. But many women ran the race anyway. Society in Chaos would tell the story of gender segregation in distance running through the lens of one of the most popular running events in the world. At the time, male runners often said that women’s bodies were too frail for the athletic exertion of marathons. But women like Roberta Gibb, best known for jumping out of the bushes at the start of and completing the Boston Marathon in 1966, and Kathrine Switzer, who registered under the name K.V. Switzer and received an official number in the next year’s race, paved the way for Nina Kuscsik, the first woman to win the sanctioned women’s marathon in 1972, and all women who run in the world-renowned race today.

The University of Connecticut’s women’s team (Photo courtesy of UConnHuskies.com)

6. The Streak

There is not a college basketball team in U.S. history more successful than the University of Connecticut’s women’s team. Currently in possession of the longest winning streak in the history of college basketball—men’s or women’s—the Huskies have been a top-rated team consistently since 1995, when they won the first of their (now 11) NCAA Division I National Championships. With a fan base extending far beyond the bounds of the Constitution State, coach Geno Auriemma and star players like Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and Maya Moore, among so many others, elevated the status of women’s basketball in the United States and changed the way colleges think of their women’s athletics programs. The Streak would take a look at the history of the UConn Huskies from its early days as a rather unremarkable program to its current position as an NCAA powerhouse, shedding light on how this ever-changing crew of players maintains their winning reputation. 

Georgia Frontiere (Photo source: Wikimedia)

7. Madame Ram

In 1995, Los Angeles Rams owner and occasional nightclub performer Georgia Frontiere was on a mission to bring her team and a Super Bowl title to her hometown of St. Louis. The only things standing in her way were family troubles, the entire NFL, and widespread doubt that a woman should have her job at all. Having originally inherited the team from her late husband, Frontiere took on the role of owner with vigor, moving the team from Los Angeles to Anaheim to her home city of St. Louis. In the process, she became one of the most hated NFL team owners in the history of the league. Despite negative media attention, financial hardship, and lagging ticket sales, Frontiere and the Rams eventually emerged with a Super Bowl victory in 2000, solidifying her place in professional football history. Madame Ram would chronicle Frontiere’s wild ride from the bottom to the top of the male-dominated world of NFL team ownership.

(Photo source: Cliff on Flickr)

8. Cast in Bronze

When the winners of the women’s 4x100m relay at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were announced, no one was more thrilled to win than the bronze medalist team from Nigeria. Teammates Beatrice Utondu, Christy Opara-Thompson, Mary Onyali, and Faith Idehen were relative outsiders in the international running scene and were not expected to stack up against powerhouses like France and the United States. Though injury and traditional cultural gender norms would threaten their chances of competing in those Olympics at all, they would leave Barcelona that summer as the first Nigerian women to win Olympic medals. Onyali eventually went on to become one of Nigeria’s most successful runners, appearing at the Olympics four more times.  

(Photo Source: Santa Ana Lionettes)

9. The Story of The Skipper

Nancy “The Skipper” Ito began her softball career in 1947 while thousands of West Coast Japanese-Americans still were readjusting to life outside of internment and residual anti-Japanese hysteria. Continuing the legacy of Japanese-American women playing the sport, Ito first played in Denver and then in California with the Orange Lionettes in the Pacific Coast League, where she earned a reputation as an all-star catcher. When she wasn’t dominating women’s softball, she worked as a computer programmer. Yes, Ito defied gender barriers in her day job and in the sports career she held on the side. Ito is relatively unknown outside of the women’s softball world, but historians like Joel S. Franks, Kerry Yo Nakagawa, and Samuel O. Regalado, among others, help keep her memory alive through their scholarship of nikkei baseball and softball history. The Story of the Skipper would trace the story of Ito from her first entrance into the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) to her journey to Osaka, Japan for an international softball championship in 1970 to her induction into the ASA Hall of Fame in 1982.

(Photo source: Rugby Today.)

10. First Cup

In 1991, 12 all-women rugby teams from around the world gathered in Wales for the first ever Women’s Rugby World Cup. Despite open hostility from locals, sparse press coverage, and a shoestring budget that left some teams bartering and selling souvenirs for room and board money, the Cup went on as planned and marked a new era in international rugby. The Women’s Rugby World Cup continues today, now officially sanctioned by the sport’s international governing body, World Rugby, and women’s rugby will be included in the Summer Olympics for the first time this summer. Drawing from the recollections of the people who were there, First Cup would tell the story of that very first Women’s Rugby World Cup, which the USA Team won, and would examine the legacy of that underappreciated but landmark tournament.

by Ann-Derrick Gaillot
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I am a freelance writer and reporter who watches a lot of TV. I tweet at @methodann.

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