Laila Ali in the ESPN documentary film "Branded."

Laila Ali in the ESPN documentary film "Branded." Credit: ESPN


WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ESPN

WHY TO WATCH So, women athletes -- do they or don't they?

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This is a true dilemma, a choice between two equally undesirable alternatives. Do women athletes play up their sex appeal to build interest and make money? Or do they instead rely on their athletic skills, even if that means less "success"?

As "Branded" makes clear, it's a trick question. You're right both ways, and wrong either. This hour from directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing ("Freakonomics") studies 40 years of women athletes since the adoption of college sports' Title IX, which increased funding for women's athletics. (And prompted ESPN's anniversary "Nine for IX" docu-series, concluding with this pensive hour.)

The touchstones are recalled with event clips, vintage commercials and savvy/sad commentary from both participants and observers. It's clear why the 1970s concurrent growth in sports TV benefited tennis star Chris Evert. She was so cute! Also capable. But which gets you Lipton Tea ads?

Ask '80s Olympic gymnastics queen Mary Lou Retton. Adorably all-American! And a marketing juggernaut. Retton grabbed the commercial gold by "retiring" at 17. Would-be '90s tennis star Anna Kournikova becomes a cautionary tale -- hyped because she looked hot, snubbed when her tennis stayed cool. Brandi Chastain won women's soccer's 1999 World Cup, then ripped off her jersey in celebration. Media coverage ballyhooed her sports bra -- instead of, you know, her team conquering The Entire World.

Evert, Retton and Chastain are on-camera here, with soccer's Hope Solo, basketball's Lisa Leslie, volleyball's Gabrielle Reece and Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones, all revisiting the options laid before them. Our initial question has a clear take-away: Whether she does or she doesn't, she'll be defending her choices, from everybody, forever.

MY SAY There are no answers here, just quandaries that also challenge the viewer. These accomplished athletes should be able to make a living on skill alone. But which women's sports have you and I paid to see/attend lately? What was our motivation? Sports is no outlier -- its double standards stem from American society/culture.

BOTTOM LINE How many viewers will feel most compelled to comment not on what these women say but what they look like?


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