clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2011 International Women's Day: 'In The Game' Documentary Looks At The WNBA & Title IX

The theme of 2011 International Women's Day is equal access to education, training and science and technology and Kartemquin Films is producing a documentary that almost perfectly honors the role of sports within that theme.

Kartemquin - which produced Hoop Dreams, arguably the best documentary of all-time - is partnering with Girls in the Game, 1World Sports, Women's Sports Foundation, and the National Women's Law Center to launch a 2012 campaign aiming to shine a spotlight on the expanding under-representation of urban and low-income girls of color in U.S. athletics. At the center of that effort, which will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Title IX, is a documentary In The Game by veteran filmmaker Maria Finitzo, who may be most well known for her award-winning 2001 film 5 Girls.

And although the film is framed around Title IX's 40th anniversary, it goes well beyond the standard legislative narrative and looks at the achievements that the WNBA represents and the aspirations of urban high school girls who make daily sacrifices just for an opportunity to play organized sports.

In a PBS POV interview, Finitzo has said that the goal of 5 Girls was to create a portrait of not only the things that empower adolescent girls, but also the challenges of finding one's own way "in a world that keeps trying to tell them what to be like."

One of those five stories was about 16-year-old Aisha who attends an all-girls Catholic school in a suburb of Chicago and was drawn to basketball as a fun extracurricular activity, but also found a sense of toughness in learning the team sport. So a decade later, In The Game essentially expands on that sentiment Aisha expressed about playing high school basketball to explore just how far we've come and the distance we have yet to travel.

And as someone who didn't have the opportunity to play sports herself, there's also a personal inspiration to Finitzo's latest work.

"It was very important for me to help my daughter find a sport that resonated with her," said Finitzo, Director/Producer of In The Game, in a Q&A with Swish Appeal. "So at first I signed her up for everything, little league, basketball, soccer, and swimming. And it was really exciting when she finally chose softball. The girls who on her team started out in 5th grade and every time they dropped the ball, they would say, "Sorry! Oh, sorry!" And the male coaches would say, "Quit apologizing." And by the time they were in 8th grade, they were kick-ass softball players. And it was great because I never heard them apologize again."

The film stands as both a celebration of Title IX's successes and a portrait of the ongoing inter-generational struggle for equal opportunity in sports that neither Finitzo nor Co-Producer Mary Morrisette had as girls growing up.

So although Title IX discussions normally revolve around debates about equity at the college level, as Cody Worsham of DIG captured in his comprehensive look at the law's legacy, effects, and various reform efforts last week, In The Game takes a slightly different approach to the matter, with perhaps a more personal touch. In focusing on the aspirations of high school girls and the achievements of the WNBA, the film essentially focuses on how two generations of post-Title IX beneficiaries are making sense of and capitalizing on a culture of opportunity in their own lives.

"It wasn't the sports that I was focusing on, it was the story," said Finitzo. "I wanted a story that showed the absolute zenith of Title IX - women professional athletes. The WNBA. A league that now exists that didn't exist before. And then I wanted a story that would illustrate what was still left unfulfilled for Title IX. So even though there've been great strides, the promise of equity remains unfulfilled and that's where I was going with the other story."

What does Kelly High School illustrate about the unfulfilled promise of Title IX?

Somewhat similar to Hoop Dreams, that unfulfilled promise of Title IX is explored through the lens of Chicago's inner city sports scene. Finitzo's narrative is grounded in the story of Kelly High School, an 80% Latino school where head coach Stan Mietus has created a soccer program with limited resources and, perhaps even more startling, without a field to practice on.

"I felt that was a place to start a great story," said Finitzo. "I mean it's one thing to go to school that has everything. Nobody appreciates what they have. But these girls love soccer and they love playing for Stan and I thought that was the basis for a very powerful story. I think what it'll illuminate is that if you were a girl in high school that's in a well-financed community, then you have every opportunity. But if you're a girl in high school in the inner city, in public education, then you don't have the same opportunities. And that is not fair."

As Finitzo alludes to, KHS is not only an exploration of gender and sports, but also an exemplar of how long-standing social inequalities are exacerbated at the intersection of class, gender, and race across K-12 education.

As of 2010, there were over one million students attending schools described as "persistently low performing" and 81% of those are students of color, which makes KHS something of a microcosm given our nation's growing Latino population. We can quibble about the potential pitfalls of labeling schools "low performing", but the bottom line is the vast majority of students of color are being denied the type of education required to succeed in the U.S. In far too many of these low performing schools, the pressure to meet Annual Yearly Progress (as defined by a 5% increase across demographics on standardized tests) results in opportunities for play during recess being cut in favor of more instructional time in overcrowded and under-resourced classrooms.

For girls, that unfortunate situation is often compounded by the fact that they're also denied equitable opportunity to participate in athletics either.

"That means that a lot of girls aren't getting sports opportunities because 80% of us in our country of 310 million people are living in dense urban areas," said Morrisette. "So a very large population of girls is not getting the enormous health and career benefits that come with playing sports."

Consistent with the theme of International Women's Day 2011 (or the logic of the Girl Effect), the best thing we can do as a society for girls who already face the interlocking challenges of poverty, racism, sexism is to educate them. Part of that process of empowerment in the spirit of Title IX that Finitzo has essentially dedicated her career to is about giving girls the tools to pursue whatever path they might choose, whether that be the education to pursue a career, the athletic skill to inspire them to maintain a healthy lifestyle, or even, more globally, simply the possibility for self-determination.

"It seems like the whole idea behind Title IX, which impacts our girls, our women, future mothers, future partners, future family centers, future business leaders-that's a huge impact," said Morrisette. "When we were kids, we ran everywhere, we were always moving and didn't have the obesity issues. We also didn't have fast foods. In our culture today, in our economy, it's a lot of bang for your buck to give girls and boys in cities access to these things because you're shifting a whole generation that's going to make different choices."

The other part of shifting the mindset of a generation born into a culture of opportunity is to destabilize gender stereotype by helping girls imagine themselves pursuing any number of paths in life, whether that be an athlete, businesswoman, filmmaker, or anyone of the more traditionally woman-dominated professions (education, social services, etc.).

How does the WNBA fit into this scheme?

The WNBA happens to be one of our nation's most prominent exemplars of athletic role models and as much as looking at the Chicago Sky as a case study of the WNBA was convenient, it is also fitting for the theme of this movie.

In each of its first six years of existence, the Sky has drawn the lowest attendance in the WNBA and its franchise average attendance of 3,837 is the lowest of any of the 21 franchises that have existed in league history. Although there were some encouraging signs last year with a new television contract and an increase to a franchise-high 4,292 per game with the move to Allstate Arena, the Sky still drew less than the first-year Tulsa Shock (4,812) that relocated from Detroit and failed to make their first playoff appearance despite having a dominant post presence in Sylvia Fowles.

While some might see the Sky's mediocre track record as a sign that the WNBA is ultimately unsustainable, Finitzo counsels patience citing the NBA as a point of reference.

"I think Adam Fox, who's CEO of the Sky now said it best: he said it took, what, 30 years for the NBA to find an audience? And it didn't really find an audience until Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had that rivalry in the 1979 College Basketball Finals," said Finitzo when asked about other challenges for the Sky that she's observed in the course of making the movie. "People forget that. People forget that NBA players played basketball and made so little money they lived in their cars. People forget that nobody watched the NBA on prime time television. It wasn't a big thing. And it took years for the NBA to get an audience.

"So trashing the Sky because in 6 short years they haven't built a huge audience is shortsighted."

Although people will like continue to bring up the Sky when discussing which WNBA teams likely to fold or relocate next, there are still reasons for hope in Chicago, including their off-season coaching change that will see veteran women's basketball coach Pokey Chatman return to the U.S. with a chance to get the Sky moving in the right direction. With a fresh coaching philosophy and among the best post players in the world, the Sky have an opportunity to change their fortunes as soon as this summer.

Similar to the Sky, the WNBA continues to struggle financially and has yet to gain a foothold in the mainstream sports market that is quite simply more saturated with sports entertainment options than when the NBA was in its infancy, not to mention currently being without a president. As described in the movie, Finitzo sees the next huge hurdle to leap as media coverage - not only exposure, but how women's basketball is presented when it does get that exposure.

"I think the point needs to be made that the media is very powerful in how they create an atmosphere or a perception that something is worthy," said Finitzo. "And they are disrespectful to women - at best, disrespectful. If ESPN covered them all the time, if they wrote about them in ways that aren't commenting on their breast size, people would perceive them differently. But they evaluate them based on the male standard, that's whether or not they play basketball the way men do. And since they don't, then they don't play well. And that's a huge hurdle to have to get over."

Yet there are also signs of hope for the WNBA in the form of jersey sponsors, increasing television exposure, and rising stars with the potential to captivate the imagination of the mainstream in NCAA Player of the Year candidate Maya Moore and 6-foot-8 Australian center Liz Cambage. With increasing star power and acknowledgement from mainstream media outlets, there are even television executives who see women's college basketball as a growth area.

So despite the challenges of teams like the Sky in a league without a president, the WNBA still stands as a celebration of Title IX's success while simultaneously embodying the long path forward.

"I like to suggest that women and girls think about what it would feel like today to not have the right to vote," said Morrissette. "And thinking about that, that they didn't have the rights to equal opportunities in education prior to Title IX getting passed in 1972. And I do think it's important to reference medicine, law, engineering, the sciences, there were not equal opportunities prior to Title IX with very few women going into those professions.  Now that's changed dramatically."

What are the aims of In The Game?

Unfortunately, some former women's basketball players and current coaches at the college and pro level lament that  not enough of Title IX's beneficiaries fully appreciate that dynamic of success-within-struggle or how the historical context of where we are now. Likewise, Finitzo shares that opinion and is hoping this project can make a difference beyond the viewing experience.

"If you ask most high school girls right now what Title IX is, they'll shrug and tell you they don't know because they never experienced a time when there were not opportunities to play sports," said Finitzo. "One of our stories is about girls of color being trained as investigative journalists so they can go into their own schools and ask questions around compliance issues as they relate to Title IX.  So what I'm hoping we will witness is a story about girls who may not even know what Title IX is becoming aware of all that this law promises and all that they deserve under the law. It is about their own awakening."

While not shown extensively in the preview, this citizen journalist training with the aid of Chicago's Columbia College is not just rhetorical or symbolic empowerment, but a direct effort to empower girls by giving them access to the tools and knowledge to exercise their voice to potentially make an impact on their surroundings, similar to that described by Worsham.

"Most high school girls don't feel like they have much of a voice or power over anything that goes on legislatively and this is an opportunity for these girl journalists to experience it probably for the first time," said Morrissette. "That's real civic engagement--democracy in action."

As Sky Chairman/Minority Owner Margaret Stender describes in the preview, ultimately Title IX is not just about legislative victories but about mutual respect between men and women in a democratic society. Regardless of where we stand on how or whether Title IX should be reformed legally, we should do all we can to both honor and preserve its spirit to achieve the equity that this nation claims to represent.

Related Links:

In The Game - Take a Stand for Girls! by Maria Finitzo — Kickstarter

WomenWatch: International Women's Day

Bio: Maria Finitzo | Kartemquin Films