Author Archives: The Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Project

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.

The Spurs Team Doctors Will See You Now

By Bre Moorer

Bre Moorer is now a graduate student at Bowling Green State University, where she is studying Kinesiology with a specialization in Sport Psychology.  She is originally from Akron, Ohio, about forty miles south of Lake Erie.  Her primary sport interest is basketball – at the amateur and professional levels.

Former Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (below right) is now a Toronto Raptor.  The 2019 NBA free agency run this summer was rocky for the California native.  For the 2017-18 season, Leonard played fewer than 10 games due to an injury that team doctors in San Antonio missed.  At least that is what the reason was early on.

An injury to Leonard’s right thigh kept him out of 2017-18 preseason play, the season-opener, and the first 2 months of NBA action.  It should be known that Leonard was a major part of the San Antonio Spurs organization.  The former San Diego State standout lead the Spurs to their fifth championship in 2014, in addition to winning NBA Finals’ MVP for his outstanding performance.  How did he only play 9 games last season?  Shortly after his limited-minute comeback against the Dallas Mavericks in December, Leonard felt that he was being rushed back.

Leonard is known for his quiet and private personality, but fans could tell he did not feel confident playing yet.  Sometimes Leonard suited up, but most of the time he took a night or two off.  Leonard took it upon himself to travel to New York to get a second opinion on his injury.  He felt like he should have been 100% by then.  NBA analysts wondered why he would embarrass the Spurs staff by refusing the services offered to him for free and in his own backyard.  Leonard was portrayed by the media as bratty and just another professional athlete who was not patient enough after an injury. Sports reporter and well-known Spurs fan Michelle Beadle said Leonard did not have the qualities that a leader is supposed to have.  She even went as far as saying that he is coming off as an “obnoxious diva.”  Leonard took verbal beat-downs from fans, journalists, and social media for not playing and refusing to work with the Spurs team doctor.  Of course, the reserved NBA All-Star did not publicly defend himself, but his decisions would become clear to critics after teammate Danny Green told all.

Just like Leonard, Danny Green (above left) was traded from the Spurs to the Toronto Raptors this summer.  Seemingly before the ink could dry on his Toronto contract, Green said that his end-of-the-season physical examination revealed a torn groin that went undetected by Spurs staff, which lead to Green getting a second opinion while he was still a Spur.  Maybe it is because of the difference in personalities or the fact that Green still managed to play through his injury, but the general public was not as hard on Green for going elsewhere for treatment.  His Twitter mentions were filled with users that claimed getting another opinion on injuries is very common.  It was even discussed on ESPN that Green’s undetected injury may let Leonard’s actions off the hook.  In other words, now that Danny Green had a problem with the Spurs staff, we can believe Kawhi Leonard.

However you look at it, there is an issue that needs to be fixed in San Antonio.  It could be negligence or innocent lack of knowledge, but it is costing players their reputations, health, and market value.

Good On You, Liz Cambage!

By Bre Moorer

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) will have its 19th annual All-Star Game at the Target Center in Minnesota, where the home team Lynx won the championship against the Los Angeles Sparks last season.  The game is on Saturday, July 28 at 3:30 pm ET as Team Parker takes on Team Delle Donne.  Maya Moore earned the Verizon WNBA All-Star MVP trophy last year, but this year all eyes will be on the woman from Down Under – Liz Cambage.

Elizabeth “Liz” Cambage has been a professional since 2008, as she took part in the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL).  The 6ft 8 in center was drafted 2nd overall by the Tulsa Shock, now the Dallas Wings, in 2011.  She even represented Australia in the Olympic Games in 2012.  Although the 26-year-old has had an eventful and successful career, something happened on Tuesday, July 17 that fans of basketball will remember for a long time.

In a 104-87 home win against the New York Liberty, Cambage scored a record-setting 53 points for all of Twitter and women’s basketball fans around the world to watch.  In addition to her whopping 53 points, Liz had 10 rebounds and 5 blocks.  Before Cambage, the WNBA record for most points in a game was 51.  That record was held by Riquna Williams, who also played for the Tulsa Shock, but is now a member of the Los Angeles Sparks.  As the Wings pulled away from the Liberty in the 4th quarter, every sports site had their article ready to publish about Cambage’s special performance.

Just to name a few, Bleacher Report, CBS, Ballislife, SB Nation, The New York Times, ESPNW, and Sports Illustrated expressed their amazement in Cambage with tweets and articles.  NBA player Kevin Durant left a comment on Instagram that suggested we all are witnessing Liz’s “era of dominance.”  During her post-game interview, Cambage addressed those who doubted her ability to play in the American league.  She mentioned her “big numbers” in other leagues and ended the interview with, “I guess this game is for y’all.”  The attention that Liz is getting comes at a time when WNBA players and fans are asking for more attention and support for the league. If making history does not do it, then what will?

The WNBA’s Low Pay in the Age of Social Media

By Bre Moorer

For the past couple of months, WNBA stars have been more outspoken than usual about the pay gap.  Or maybe they have always shared their thoughts, but did not get as much attention as they are getting now.  It could be because they can just type their thoughts out in 140 characters or less and simply hit a button that shows their message to millions of people.  That has been an option for years, but why are the fed up women of the professional basketball league seemingly being heard now more than ever?  With the help of social media, specifically Twitter, the low salaries in the WNBA are back in the spotlight this summer, but this time it feels different.

To get the discussion started this time around, Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Dallas Wings appeared on ESPN’s Get Up on May 28th to address the issue with Jalen Rose and Michelle Beadle.  Jalen directed his frustration toward the NBA by saying they need to do a better job of “dedicating resources to help promote” the women’s league since the WNBA is a “subsidiary of the NBA.”  While Diggins-Smith did not flat out agree with Jalen’s point about the NBA being responsible for WNBA players not getting paid as much, she did bring up the fact that “it’s all about exposure.”  In the same breath, the fearless leader of the Dallas Wings also mentioned social platforms should be better utilized.  She recommended showing more games on Twitter.  The South Bend legend’s comments inspired her peers to express themselves without regret.

In the wake of LeBron James signing a 4-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers for a whopping $153.3 million, rookie sensation A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces took to Twitter to “congratulate” King James.

While some Twitter users backed Wilson, most users bombarded the 1st overall pick in the 2018 draft with reasons as to why they think she should get back in her lane.  One person said ratings are too low for the women hoopers to get more money, to which Wilson responded it is more than just viewings.  A couple of users tweeted that if she was as good as LeBron, then she would earn more.  The power forward laughed at those tweets for the most part, but she did say to one troll that bench players in the NBA get paid more than starters in the WNBA – eliminating the arguments that the pay gap is about skill set.  Perhaps the most popular argument against the WNBA getting paid more is the NBA bringing in more revenue than the WNBA.  The 2017 NCAA champion had a response for that too.  She said that the NBA gets more of a percentage of the revenue they bring in than the women so it is still unfair regardless of how much revenue is brought in.  Wilson spent a whole weekend defeating Internet trolls in the beginning of July. She ended her run by hoping that the men in her mentions had daughters who want to play basketball so that they can grasp where she is coming from.  She was “glad to stir the pot.”

This past weekend, NBA superstar Damian Lillard watched A’ja Wilson’s Las Vegas Aces and the Connecticut Sun work.  He was obviously impressed by what he saw and backed Wilson’s call for equal pay.  By the end of the game, a video of Lillard revealing his thoughts on the lack of respect WNBA players get was trending on Twitter.

In Lillard’s opinion, the women as individuals should be treated as the pros they are as far as salaries go and their league deserves to be exalted.  Having someone like Damian Lillard, who is a 3-time NBA All-Star, could start a trend of NBA players speaking up in support of WNBA players getting paid more.

After all is said and done, the WNBA is in need of support and exposure in order for its players to get what they deserve in the first place – more money.  As long as the women continue to use their platforms and their male counterparts actively show their love for the WNBA, the future looks bright for equal pay between the NBA and WNBA.

Welcome (back) to Spring 2018!

It has been several months since we regularly published entries on the Richard A. Maxwell Sport Media Watch Project. But we are ready to resume and look forward to a fruitful semester of writing by a talented group of students. At the beginning of the semester, we were fortunate to meet with BGSU alumnus Jay Crawford, former ESPN host of Sportscenter and Cold Pizza, and currently serving as Executive in Residence at his Alma Mater.

Jay has been generous with his time in meeting with students as he shared with us about the importance of journalists as “truth tellers.” Our goal as always is to analyze and critique media practices in their coverage of sport, in the hope that we can find ‘truth’ in what they are writing and saying about sport. We welcome your comments and feedback on our entries, and encourage you to share our posts with others who are interested in cultivating the skills of good sport journalism.

 

“DAD. WALK IT BACK.”

By Dr. Nancy E. Spencer, Associate Professor, BGSU Sport Management Program

During a press conference at the NCAA Final Four, UConn Coach Geno Auriemma was asked about the declining number of women coaches.[1] He responded by saying, “not as many women want to coach” (Jones, 2017, para. 3). Research confirms that his response is a common refrain. In a study by Acosta and Carpenter (1994), men and women athletic administrators were asked to provide reasons for the decline of women in coaching and administration of intercollegiate athletics. The responses revealed pronounced gender differences. Women perceived that there were systemic issues (e.g., a successful ‘old-boys’ network; lack of support for women; and unconscious discrimination), while men pointed to problems with individual women (i.e., failure of women to apply; lack of qualified women coaches and administrators; and time constraints due to family responsibilities) (Acosta & Carpenter, 1994). In a more recent NCAA study by Rachel Stark, the following reasons were given: increasing demands of coaching; constraints on working mothers; homophobia; lack of mentors and/or networking opportunities; and gender bias (Longman, 2017).

Two Final Four women coaches also gave their thoughts about why there are fewer women coaches. Stanford Coach Tara Van Derveer said that “women aren’t recycled in the way that men are” (Jenkins, 2017, para. 12). A unique example occurred with former Vanderbilt Coach, Melanie Balcomb, who was fired in 2016. Three months after not being hired elsewhere, South Carolina’s NCAA winning Coach Dawn Staley, hired Balcomb to serve as an “analytics consultant” (Jenkins, 2017, para. 15).

When Geno’s comments were discussed on “Around-the-Horn,” Prof. Kevin Blackistone confirmed research findings. Blackistone pointed out that before Title IX was enacted in 1972, more than 90% of coaches and administrators of women’s teams were women, while the average percentage of all women collegiate coaches is now around 43%. (see: Acosta & Carpenter, 2014). According to Nicole LaVoi, Co-Director of the Tucker Center, her biggest concern is that young women are missing “the opportunity to have a female coaching role model” (Longman, 2017, para. 25).

While many coaches, journalists and broadcasters have responded to Coach Auriemma’s statements, perhaps the best response was the one his daughter wrote on Twitter: “DAD, WALK IT BACK.” She added: “I’m pretty sure what dad was trying to say, in a limited, male perspective, is that a lot of avenues are open to women now that weren’t” (Jenkins, 2017, para. 8). Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Coach Auriemma or his daughter, the door has been opened to an important dialogue that journalists and broadcasters have made more visible.

[1] According to NCAA statistics, the percentage of women coaches of Division I women’s basketball teams has declined from 63% in 2007-2008 to 56% in 2015-2016

The Greatest Story in Sports History?

By Dr. Nancy E. Spencer

Tennis commentator John McEnroe called it the greatest story in sports history. Not just in women’s sports, or women’s tennis, but in all of sports’ history! And he wasn’t alone in proclaiming it. On Thursday, January 26, all four ESPN panelists on ‘Around the Horn’ agreed. They were referring to the story of 36-year old Venus Williams and 35-year old Serena Williams, the famous “Sister Act” who were to meet in their 27th head-to-head match in the Women’s Singles final at the 2017 Australian Open. It was part of an historical weekend of tennis that also featured two thirtysomething players in the Men’s final: 35-year old Roger Federer vs. 30-year old Rafa Nadal. By most standards, tennis players in their mid-30s are thought of as over-the-hill. In this case, it was ‘must-see TV’ and tennis was the better for it. Not only were they four of the best players of all time, but they have dominated tennis for over a decade, “winning a combined total of 60 majors in their careers” (Bialik, 2017, para. 1).

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The Results? In the weekend matches, Serena edged out older sister Venus, 6-4, 6-4, while Roger needed five sets to prevail over Rafa, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. Winning another major title brought Serena’s total number to 23 majors, surpassing Steffi Graf (22), and trailing only Margaret Court, the Australian, who holds 24 titles. Besides adding to her numbers, Serena reclaimed the World No. 1 ranking this week, after what was (for her) a disappointing 2016 season. Now that she is healthy Serena could conceivably tie and maybe even surpass Margaret Court in 2017.

The 2017 Australian Open men’s and women’s finals were nostalgic for fans. My biggest regret was that I didn’t attend this year’s tournament in Australia. Ten years ago, I was at the Australian Open for both finals. Guess who won? The same two: Serena won the Women’s singles over Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-2, while Roger defeated Fernando Gonzalez, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4 to win the Men’s singles.

The Williams sisters’ rivalry as well as the pairing of Roger and Rafa demonstrate the longevity of their careers. Venus and Serena have faced each other 27 times, while Roger and Rafa have played 35 times. Neither can truly be considered the ‘greatest tennis rivalry’ in terms of the number of times they have played. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova hold that distinction, having met 80 times between 1973 and 1989.

May-Jun 1986:  Martina Navratilova (left) of the USA chats with Chris Evert also of the USA as they hold their respective trophies after the Womens Singles final during the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris.  Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport

So, why do multiple sports writers believe the Williams’ sisters’ story may be “the greatest sports story” ever? (Simons, 2017)?

For those who have followed the Williams’ sisters throughout their careers, it is evident that all the elements of a great story are there: a compelling orientation, a crisis, escalation, discovery, and change (Klems, 2014). Below I elaborate on how the Williams sisters’ story demonstrates each of those elements – and how the media reported on them.

The beginning of a good story needs to “grab the reader’s attention,” and orient us to “the setting, mood and tone of the story” (Klems, 2014, para. 15). In 1991, Sports Illustrated writer Sonia Steptoe (1991) introduced 10-year old Venus as “the most hotly pursued preteen in U.S. tennis history” (para. 5). We learned that Venus hailed from Compton, CA (as in “Straight-out-of-Compton” fame) where she lived in “a small mint-green house… spray-painted with black graffiti.” There she dreamed “of wearing a white dress and playing tennis on the grass courts at Wimbledon” (para. 2). Americans were looking for the next great superstar to fill the void left by Chris Evert’s retirement. Venus’ coach, Rick Macci likened her athleticism to ‘His Airness,’ Michael Jordan. The anticipation of this “Cinderella of the Ghetto,” as her father referred to her, established her promise as the future of tennis. Her father, Richard, also suggested that younger sister Serena would be even better than Venus!

venus-and-serena-1991

The second ingredient of a good story is a “crisis that tips your character’s world upside down,” and she cannot immediately resolve the crisis (para. 19). While Venus faced a series of mini-crises in her early career, none rose to the level of unresolvable until 2001, when she and Serena were slated to meet in the semi-finals at Indian Wells, a tournament that was a family favorite due to its proximity to Compton. It was where Serena had won her first professional match. By 2001, Venus and Serena had each won a grand slam tournament – Serena won the 1999 U.S. Open, while Venus captured the 2000 Wimbledon title. When they arrived at Indian Wells, there was great anticipation among fans to see their match that was to be aired live on ESPN. Dominant reports conveyed that moments before their scheduled match was to begin, Venus defaulted, leading some to believe that their father Richard had orchestrated the default, although that suspicion has never been substantiated. Given the disappointment of fans, the announcement was met with harsh booing from the crowd (Smith, 2001). Two days later, when Serena appeared for the final against Kim Clijsters, fans again greeted her with loud boos. And when Venus and Richard entered the court, the booing increased and some fans were heard shouting racial epithets. Richard Williams reported that one fan told him he was ‘lucky it wasn’t 1975,’ or he would ‘skin him alive’ (Smith, 2001, p. 3C).

In an interview with Doug Smith, of USA Today, Richard “accused the media of biased coverage of his family and said ESPN announcers (Pam Shriver and Mary Joe Fernandez) were derelict for failing to criticize the behavior of Indian Wells’ fans when Serena defeated Cljisters” (p. 3C). During the match, Shriver and Fernandez had described the environment as ‘unlike anything they had ever seen.’ Although Serena somehow prevailed to win in three sets, fans continued to boo her throughout the trophy presentation, even as then-19-year old Serena told the crowd that she loved them. In the aftermath of that traumatic experience, Richard vowed never to return to Indian Wells (Smith, 2001).

In 2009, Serena revealed in her autobiography that Venus had informed tournament officials that she was injured earlier in the day of their scheduled semifinal, adding that she would not be able to play the match. However, given the delay (by tournament officials) in announcing her withdrawal until just before the match, Venus (and her father) were vilified by the crowd. Unfortunately, Serena bore the brunt of it. In retrospect, Serena could not understand why a tournament official did not make an announcement or seek to quiet the crowd by telling them that Venus was truly injured. She described it as one of the ‘darkest moments of her career.’

The third element of a good story involves an escalation of the crisis, which occurred in the Williams’ saga when the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) introduced the “Road Map” in 2008 (Evans, 2008). That plan was implemented to reduce the number of player withdrawals and to encourage players to make greater commitments to tournaments. The aim of the guidelines was to make the tour more ‘fan friendly’ by ensuring that top-ranked players would appear in major tournaments. Another feature of the new plan was the designation of five tournaments as ‘premier mandatory’ events, which meant the prize money would be greater than all except the grand slams, and players would be required to enter, barring injury. When Indian Wells was designated as ‘premier mandatory,’ some speculated that it was done in part to encourage the return of the Williams sisters to Indian Wells. Despite the WTA’s efforts to encourage their return, Venus and Serena remained steadfast in their refusal to play at Indian Wells, and their boycott continued. Many in the media expressed the view that the Williams sisters should return to Indian Wells, as indicated here: “There comes a time when bygones should be bygones. Venus and Serena have made their point… it is time for the sisters to return to the California desert with their heads held high and lingering slights, nasty as they were, forgotten” (Evans, 2008, para. 12).

The fourth ingredient of a good story entails discovery, which occurs as “the climax of the story,” when the protagonist(s) “make(s) a discovery that changes (her) life” (para. 41). In February 2015, Serena announced that she would end her 14-year boycott and return to Indian Wells. She attributed her change of heart to Nelson Mandela’s impact upon her life. His example, coupled with lessons she had learned from her mother, enabled her to realize the power of forgiveness. In contrast to the scene of the 2001 tourney, Serena was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation. Although nervous in her first match, she won it and advanced to the semifinals before having to default due to injury. This time she appeared on court before the match to explain to fans what happened, and the fans had a more positive response. According to Thomas (2015), “You could hear a few scattered boos, unbelievably and too predictably, but mostly there was applause” (para. 20).

Finally, a good story reflects change in the protagonist when she is “transformed into someone more mature, insightful or at peace” (para. 48). Serena’s change of heart was noted by USTA President Katrina Adams who said, “Serena’s decision to return is another sign of her maturity in understanding that although many people show signs of ignorance, not all are (ignorant),” Adams added that, “The past is history, but the present is a gift. She has millions of fans in California that would love to see her play in person, and what a treat they will be in for” (Clarey, 2015, para. 16). While most of the media attention focused on Serena’s change of heart and growth in maturity, there was little if any mention that perhaps Indian Wells needed to apologize publicly for the inappropriate behavior that occurred at Indian Wells in 2001, if for no other reason than to assure Venus and Serena that such a response would never happen again. After Serena’s positive experience upon returning in 2015, her older sister Venus decided to return in 2016. She too experienced the love and appreciation of fans upon her return to the court.

The story of how the Williams’ sisters overcame the crisis at Indian Wells is only one chapter of the compelling story of their 20-year careers in professional women’s tennis. That is probably why so many sports writers and broadcasters consider theirs to be the ‘Greatest Sports’ Story!’ The best thing is that it is still unfolding before us.

References

Bialik, C. (2017, January 27). Tennis is growing old with Federer, Nadal and the Williams sisters. FiveThirtyEight. Retrieved from https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/tennis-is-growing-old-with-federer-nadal-and-the-williams-sisters/

Clarey, C. (2015). After a 14-year boycott, Serena Williams plans to play at Indian Wells. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/sports/tennis/serena-williams-will-play-indian-wells-ending-boycott.html?_r=0

Clarey, C. (2017, January 26). A final match for Venus and Serena Williams, but maybe not the last one. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/26/sports/tennis/williams-venus-serena-australian-open.html?_r=0

Evans, R. (2008, September 6). Williams threat to U.S. Roadmap. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2008/sep/07/tennis.usopentennis

Simons, B. (2017, January 26). Venus and Serena – ‘The greatest sports story.’ Inside Tennis. Retrieved from http://www.insidetennis.com/2017/01/ao-venus-and-serena/

Smith, D. (2001, March 26). Williams decries fans as racist. USA Today, p.3C.

Steptoe, S. (1991, June 10). Child’s play. Sports Illustrated Vault. Retrieved from http://www.si.com/vault/1991/06/10/124343/childs-play-tenniss-newest-pixie-is-named-venus-at-age-10-she-dreams-of-flying-to-jupiter-others-have-earthier-hopes-for-her

Thomas, L. (2015, March 23). A place in the sun: The return and withdrawal of Serena Williams at Indian Wells. Grantland. Retrieved from http://grantland.com/the-triangle/serena-williams-indian-wells-2015/

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.

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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.