An Unfair Lady

by Tom Konecny

This is another in our series of guest entries submitted by professional journalists. Tom Konecny graduated from BGSU’s Sport Management program in 1992, with a minor in Journalism.  He received his Master’s in Kinesiology from the University of Michigan in 1995. He now works as a marketing/communications/writing consultant and freelancer. 

It’s time to retire a sexist nickname that never should have happened


As another season of intercollegiate sports comes to a close, a disconcerting custom marches on, having nothing to do with the quality of play or level of competition on the field – still, it permeates the game, hanging over it like a dark cloud or unseemly scarlet letter:  the use of “lady” with female sports teams’ nicknames.

In actuality, the issue is not unique to college sports but noticeable at all levels, fueled largely by past practices, media and ignorance, and excused in some locales on the basis of tradition.  Many don’t even realize the wrong, and when the topic is broached, out comes the unwitting expression, “but we’ve always done it this way.”

It’s embarrassing as a society, because by now, we should all know better.

Title IX

Some mistakenly point to the landmark 1972 Title IX act as causing the increase of female athletic participation at the expense of males.  Yet while Title IX is best known for its impact on athletics, the original act made no explicit mention of sports.  It ensures that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be … subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Detecting discrimination isn’t always as easy as it seems, as there are two types recognized by the legal system:  disparate treatment and disparate impact, according to Dr. Sungho Cho, BGSU associate professor.  In brief, disparate treatment is related to intentional discrimination, whereas disparate impact is unintentional, though discriminatory actions may still occur toward the protected group.

Dr. Cho notes that Title IX covers only disparate treatment cases, which then begs the question:  is the use of “lady” intentional discrimination?

It could have been at one point in time, but that also may be difficult to establish; many of today’s uses are carryovers from a bygone era.  At the same time, one might also accurately argue that dropping its use could remove schools from being involved in any future litigious situation.  Consider the troubles which befall schools/teams who employ Native American nicknames.  Indeed, it might be a proactive step to not even keep schools in a position where this could become an issue, and thereby stop the practice dead in its tracks.

Though Title IX is over four decades old, it would be pragmatic to take another close look as to why it was created in the first place and refocus our collective principles.

Media Influence

To be sure, the use of “lady” is not the norm at the collegiate level, where most institutions of higher learning have generally proved their scholarly ways through seeking equality in athletic departments.  But while none of the schools in the nearby conferences of choice – the MAC and Big Ten – employ its use formally, it’s often the news media who continue to perpetuate this unfair habit.

The media will always help to shape public perception, and with smart phones, blogs and social media, nearly anyone can become an instrument for and with the media – if not become the media themselves.  Many a self-taught blog writer with no journalistic training can now receive press credentials to access locker rooms and photograph sporting events.  Indeed, they have become the media every bit as the local newspaper, radio and television, and especially so as media transforms, thereby being consumed differently in today’s digital age.  Athletic departments clearly recognize this, which is why they grant such channels access that would have never been achieved in yesteryear.  The problem, however, goes far beyond blogs, and is particularly prevalent during televised sports highlights and in print headlines.

Any PR firm will agree that when utilized correctly, the power of the media can be a most valuable ally. When handled carelessly, it can be dangerous and harmful to one’s image.  But just because today’s various forms of media are all-powerful, doesn’t mean they’re all-perfect.  Change will come when athletic departments notice the term being used inappropriately, and take action to correct it through repeated media announcements, and particularly so to new journalists as they enter the fold.

Reporters can’t simply say and do whatever they want in the name of journalistic sovereignty – their job is to report the news with accuracy.  Calling a sports team by its incorrect name is not factual reporting, and the connotation falsely assumes that societal norms never change, leaving the media consumer influenced temporarily at best, offended at worst – all due to an unfair and unsuitable word choice.

Among High Schools and Youth Sports

The use of “lady” in high school and youth sports has been a more difficult nut to crack.  The term is widespread among teams of a very young age, oddly, despite being nowhere near lady (or adult) status.  At the high school level, most teams and their governing associations are resistant to change, barely even recognizing a problem in the first place.  Even if they do – rather than issue a sweeping mandate to solve the matter at once – they’ve washed their hands of the issue, choosing to leave matters among individual schools and teams, which brings its discussion to near inexistence.

It’s a fainthearted reaction by turning a blind eye to the real problem and creating a missed opportunity in more ways than one.  First, while every athletic handbook speaks of “appropriate behavior,” one could certainly argue that singling out the girls’ team with a moniker (which the boys do not possess) is certainly not appropriate.  Second, were there such a mandate initiated by governing bodies, such as from individual conferences or state associations, it is a stance that would make positive waves in the media, and position such groups as leaders, trailblazers and pioneers by demanding equality for young athletes everywhere – something by which leaders in sports should be known.

Some Universities are Old School

With social media expanding the reach of various academic departments all seeking to individualize their communication and marketing, many universities have created a uniform approach to their messaging, logos and branding.  Athletics is no different.  Brand consistency is critical, as schools move to consistent logos, wordmarks and uniforms to better market their name.

This is why it came as a peculiar move when the University of Tennessee dropped “lady” from all sports in 2014 – all those sports, that is, except women’s basketball.  Ultimately, the university chose to place higher value on tradition and marketing above equality.  This was executed as such in honor of its successful women’s basketball program, thereby considering the program itself to be its own brand.  While there is no doubting the tremendous success and notoriety achieved by legendary coach Pat Summit and her teams, a divide was created.  Rather than becoming a unified athletic department, Tennessee allowed one sports team to operate under a different set of rules.

Today, fewer than 100 schools formally use the “lady” nickname, the majority of which reside in the south.  Some believe that’s more than a coincidence, built on the southern gentlemen-ladies culture and the roles each played in history.

But while those who defend the use of “lady” at their athletic departments may claim the name is merely a way to differentiate between men’s and women’s sports, it is impossible to rationalize the fact that no equivalent nickname exists for men, which makes their sports unfairly appear to be of greater importance.

Wide World of Sports

Though it may not involve literal use of the word “lady,” there are instances of marginalizing women in other leagues through analogous means.

While it’s obvious to most that the NBA came long before the WNBA, the newer women’s league – by way of its name – has a secondary feel, especially since the NBA wasn’t renamed the Men’s NBA when the WNBA came along.  Though the WNBA no doubt wanted to associate, market and take advantage of the well-branded NBA name, a title with comparable gender stature could have been easily considered, such as the Liberty Basketball Association, or American Basketball Association.  Here again, marketing – not equality – was the impetus.

The PGA and LPGA resonate in the same way, giving the latter a lesser status it’s not.  When pro golfer Michelle Wie played on the PGA tour from 2004-2008, it resulted in heavy media coverage.  Most journalists created a perception that she had been “promoted” to the main, real and top league, simply by way of playing in a men’s league.  By comparison, consider NASCAR, where there is no special WNASCAR for female drivers like Danica Patrick.  Perhaps it’s time we give these leagues a second look, taking into account how one word, one letter, can change our viewpoint.

Labels, Stereotypes and Pop Culture

In the early 1980s women were making fantastic strides in various arenas.  Sandra Day O’Connor was named the first woman justice of the Supreme Court.  Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space.  Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman nominated by a major political party to run for vice president of the United States.

Yet even then, when women were doing great things which were supposedly outside the norm and breaking barriers, some apparently found that difficult to accept.  In sports, it was almost as if females had to be given labels so society could somehow come to grips that we weren’t really watching, for example, just basketball, but rather basketball being played by “ladies.”

Labels and stereotypes die hard.  Nearly any reference to a stay-at-home dad, whether in media or informal conversation references the movie “Mr. Mom” – a film which appeared over three decades ago.  As such, a label was born, and it will never go away.  Had that movie been given a different title, it may have slipped out of our pop culture consciousness a long time ago.  Others seem to think it is fine to typecast a stay-at-home dad as “Mr. Mom,” but no one would dare call a breadwinning, working mom by the title “Mrs. Dad.”  Both are discriminatory and biased.

Compare This

Each gender deserves its due with respect, because a simple term can leave a situation feeling so unnecessary, cruel, unfair and demeaning.  The Academy Awards do not present Oscars and Lady Oscars.  We don’t have doctors and lady doctors.  All male cats aren’t just cats, with the others being called female cats.

Sure, there’s still plenty of absurdity in our world.  Seeing a female city council member categorized as a councilman looks as inane as it is literally inaccurate.  Yet even other subsets of the sports world have been slow to embrace equality.  For example, why must the men’s NCAA basketball logo be branded “Final Four” while the women’s logo states, “Women’s Final Four”? Shouldn’t the former be called “Men’s Final Four,” making all things uniform?

And speaking of uniforms, isn’t that what sports clothing is supposed to do – make things alike, as in unified?  When the University of Tennessee lets one team wear “Volunteers” on a jersey, and another “Lady Volunteers,” does that really send a message of togetherness and harmony among the entire Tennessee athletic department?

It is possible that the athletes, fans and those around Tennessee athletics had become desensitized to a term that was so commonplace and deeply rooted in sports culture at their university.  The winning ways of the successful hoops team no doubt made it famous and celebrated.  The term had grown and became its own separate brand with no one ever stopping to question how awkward it looked in the first place.

It’s a bit like Jif’s “Choosy Moms Choose Jif” saying, or Kix’s “Kid-Tested, Mother-Approved” – both slogans rooted in different eras and different times, when women generally stayed at home, shopped, cooked and largely tended to the family.  Today, times have dramatically changed, yet those old-fashioned slogans live on and we’ve become deadened to them.  They’ve been around for decades, and after all, many people enjoy the products anyway.  So, the slogans go unnoticed, untouched – much like the “lady” nickname issue.

It’s Time for Change

Using a term like “lady,” which connotes (traditional) femininity and being ladylike, could certainly lead females to consider their attractiveness in the field of play.  This is wrong.  Conversely, we never ponder the masculinity of males in sports.  This is how we know the topic is far from trivial.  It’s outdated, old-fashioned, and worst of all, discriminatory.

Some might consider this subject matter as political correctness gone too far.  But this has nothing to do with political correctness.  The term “PC” describes the attitude of being careful not to offend any group of people in society believed to have a disadvantage.  One could accurately argue that women have disadvantages in a variety of ways, but using a “lady” nickname certainly doesn’t create any advantage; it belittles, demeans and unnecessarily separates.

Whether we realize it or not, the term “lady” establishes the male sport as the standard model – the norm – and marginalizes the efforts of females, claiming one to be the main sport, and another simply the secondary sport.  This practice cannot continue.  It is time for change.

Our nation was founded on dignity and equality, and it’s time we strive for it in athletics.

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About The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project

The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project is a hub for teaching, research, and service related to sport media. The Project benefits students and faculty at Bowling Green State University, and offers outreach and media consulting to area and regional groups that work with student-athletes. Through collaborative efforts of the Sport Management program and the School of Media and Communication, BGSU students have the opportunity to learn such skills as sports writing, reporting, broadcasting, announcing, public relations, media relations, communication management and production. Faculty and other scholars have access to resources about the commercial and sociological aspects of sport.

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