Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Nine for IX, Part III: The Biographies

The middle of the ESPN's Nine for IX series is comprised of biographies of individual athletes. In this post I discuss films 4 and 5 which feature two very different athletes: former collegiate and professional basketball player Sheryl Swoopes; and freediver Audrey Mestre. The former is the more well-known, but the story--which I watched twice--of the latter, whom I had never heard of, left me with a feeling of discord/agitation.
Regarding the former, though, Swoopes left me a feeling of "eh." Choosing Swoopes as a sole feature for one of the films in the series might not have been the best idea given the rather lackluster film that emerged. I would rather have seen a film about the initial start of the WNBA and its central figures--both players and administrators, which was the most interesting part of Swoopes, in my opinion.  Though she was, at least briefly, the female Michael Jordan (in part because of her deal with Nike that included her own shoe!), even the documentary pointed out that she was not the sole face of the then brand new WNBA. And, as was proven when she was out on maternity leave during the first season of the league, she was not unequivocally the best player in the league.
There were a lot of potentially interesting moments in the documentary, but--as has been the case with the films in this series--they remain unexplored. For example, the fact that Swoopes went broke. Athletes mismanaging their earnings is an under-discussed issue. Is it a personality issue? A cultural issue (i.e., is there something about sports and the potential for high financial rewards that leads to over-spending)? I appreciated the more in-depth look at her role as a mother; something that went beyond just posing pregnant for the now-defunct Sports Illustrated for Women. I very much disliked the white, male sports writer who continually disparaged Swoopes during the film referring to her as a diva. Not sure why the director and producers felt his comments were essential to the film. I appreciated the lack of sensationalism around her sexuality. But in the end, Swoopes herself didn't come off as an especially interesting or poignant character, and though she just got a job coaching collegiate basketball and is engaged to be married, she came off as kind of a sad figure who has not dealt well with her post-playing life.
More than sad--devastating really--was the story of French freediver Audrey Mestre who was featured in No Limits. I very much appreciated the the executive producers of Nine for IX chose a more non-traditional sport. But I question the place of this film, this story, in the series. No Limits is about the death of Mestre during her attempt at a record-breaking free dive (a sled-assisted descent into deep waters done without air tanks). Mestre died trying to break the record of another female freedriver, Tanya Streeter, who was interviewed for the film, when the air bag that was supposed to whip her back to the surface did not inflate (empty canister). Though I had not heard of Mestre's story, it was already the focus of considerable media attention, including a feature story in Sports Illustrated, a book by one of her husband's former business partners, and another documentary about freediving. The story is really about Mestre's husband, Pipin Ferreras, who is seemingly responsible for her death as he was in charge of all the safety measures, including making sure that the canister is filled--and their relationship.
There was minimal questioning of the involved parties after Mestre's death and no investigation because, in the Dominican Republic where the dive was staged, an investigation only occurs when a member of the immediate family requests one. Still Ferreras has been subject to scrutiny within the freediving community and the sports world. Some accuse him of outright murder, some of manslaughter due to negligence but nearly everyone agrees he is, at best, a narcissist who may have had troubles with the fact that his wife was becoming a more successful freediver than he was (he had mostly stopped diving because he kept passing out).
The evidence is disturbing. The whole film was disturbing (which we were warned about in the opening credits as the directors showed scenes of the dive when Mestre was pulled from the water unconscious). I was left wondering what the point of this film was. It was not a beautiful tribute. It was not an exploration of a little-known sport. It seemed to merely reiterate the Sports Illustrated story while adding a few more characters to the story. It felt somewhat sensationalistic and I felt like a voyeur watching it.
I think this is part because, again, issues were raised but left unexplored. Let's talk about domestic abuse, which could have been part of this relationship--especially mental abuse. Let's talk about unhealthy male coach-female athlete relationships which still do not receive enough attention. In so many ways this story mirrors that of other female athletes (who fortunately have not died) who have been trained by abusive, narcissistic male coaches who continue to go unpunished.
The series keeps stopping just short of doing something; of getting people talking about real issues. In the other films where this has occurred I find it more of an annoyance and a valid critique of the individual film. In the case of No Limits, I think this failing has moral implications that the directors and the series producers have not considered. They used graphic footage of a woman dying, used the voices of others to suggest that her husband is responsible for her death, and then cut to credits.