A documentary film about a trailblazing female athlete who helped usher in a new age in collegiate sports
Roberta Alison was a natural. She learned tennis from her father, and in time, the young girl from Alexander City, Alabama played the game with a rare combination of power and intelligence, filling a case with trophies.
In another age, the gifted Alison would have been a highly recruited athlete coming out of high school—presented with various opportunities to earn a college education by playing women’s tennis. But the sports landscape we now know didn’t exist in 1962. It was a decade before Title IX, which mandated equal opportunities. Women’s teams and scholarships were virtually non-existent.
Undaunted, Roberta earned her way into a male-dominated world, forever altering the trajectory of sports in the Southeastern Conference and beyond.
Jason Morton, the coach of the University of Alabama’s men’s tennis team, spotted Alison on a Tuscaloosa court, overwhelmed by her skill. Inspiration struck. After enlisting the help of Alabama athletic director Paul “Bear” Bryant, who helped push a rule change through the SEC, Morton welcomed Alison onto the men’s team, where she quickly emerged as a trailblazing figure.
“I didn’t go into it wanting to be a pioneer,” Alison once said. “I just wanted to play tennis.”
The first woman to be awarded an athletic scholarship by the Crimson Tide, Alison earned three varsity letters, spending most of her college career as Bama’s No. 2 singles player. Displaying a skill that transcended gender, she was a ferocious competitor who battled for every point, and even the most talented male players respected her abilities and the way she fought and so often won, despite her much smaller stature. Some opponents forfeited, rather than risk losing to a girl. Some athletic officials openly griped about the dangerous precedent represented by her barrier-crashing career.
“Some people just weren’t ready for women athletes in those days,” Alison said.
The winner of two straight national women’s intercollegiate championships, Alison no doubt was strengthened by the vigorous competition with the best male players in the South. She aspired to continue her tennis career at the highest level. Wimbledon. Forest Hills. Paris. But just as the Open era dawned, Roberta’s dream slipped away.
Left to wonder what might have been, she returned to her hometown, married one-time coach Earl Baumgardner, raised a family and became a respected and beloved member of the community. Sadly, she died in 2009, from wounds sustained during a house fire.
Half a century after her pioneering tennis career, Roberta Alison Baumgardner’s name adorns a modern tennis facility at her alma mater, in an age when the Crimson Tide sponsors nearly a dozen women’s sports and athletic scholarships for females are plentiful. But her story remains largely unknown in a world she and other pioneers helped create—a world in which young girls all across America, empowered by the opportunity that eluded previous generations, gravitate to sports, dreaming not just of game-winning points, but also of life-altering scholarships and the sort of fulfillment that can only come from competition and achievement.
Alison’s story is awash in ambition and optimism and a young heart stirred by the pursuit of her own particular bliss. Her story reflects who we were, and who we became.
This is the story ShadowVision Productions plans to capture in ROBERTA, a documentary film by best-selling sports author Keith Dunnavant (AMERICA’S QUARTERBACK).
Dunnavant and his accomplished ShadowVision team (including director of photography/editor Jonathan W. Hickman and editor Joe Beamon) have recently completed THREE DAYS AT FOSTER, a film about civil rights and sports at the University of Alabama that was funded partially through a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. Later in 2013, THREE DAYS AT FOSTER will be available commercially.
Like the African-American pioneers highlighted in THREE DAYS AT FOSTER, the central figure in ROBERTA is emblematic of something larger, presaging not just the coming revolution in women’s sports but also the culture-sweeping conversation about gender and boundaries that erupted in the 1960s.
This is an important story that needs to be told, screams out to be told, and we need your help. The budget raised here will help us fund the filming of interviews, travel, and post-production, anticipating completion in mid-2014.
We would appreciate your participation at any level, so please check out our rewards on the right side of the page and join us in bringing ROBERTA to life.