Dropping the 'Lady'

U. of Tennessee angers many fans and alumni with plan to drop the "Lady Vols" logo, which supporters say is a sign of honor. But most colleges that once used such names for women's teams dropped them long ago.

November 17, 2014

For legions of loyal fans, the name “Lady Vol” is synonymous with success -- an identity to be proud of, a legacy to carry on.

But the term, or at least its official logo as part of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s women’s sports teams, is being phased out in a university-wide rebranding.

Starting this summer, only the women’s basketball team will retain the "Lady" in the Tennessee Volunteers. The other nine women’s sports teams and all the men's teams will use a "Power T" logo that will combine the university's athletic and academic images under a single branding.

Alumni and fans are displeased, to say the least. More than 4,200 have signed an online petition in the last few days asking the administration to change its mind.

Critics of the change, such as sports columnist Sally Jenkins, say the term “lady” isn’t a sign of inferiority and that the logo was a source of empowerment. They argue that the name evokes a standard of excellence both on and off the athletic fields. Nearly all mention Pat Summit, the iconic women’s basketball coach who won a record eight national titles as head coach of the Lady Vols.

“To remove their brand is to say that the efforts of Pat Summitt, (women’s basketball coach) Holly Warlick and (former women’s athletic director) Joan Cronin to gain respect and recognition for female athletes was in vain,” one petition-signer wrote. “I am a graduate of the university and I do not approve of this slap in the face of our ladies.”

Women’s sports teams have a long history of being separated from programs for men, and one aspect of that was using separate words to describe them, said Erin Whiteside, an assistant professor of journalism at Tennessee who researches gender issues in sports media.

There was the standard mascot or a standard event, such as the Final Four Championship rather than the Men’s Final Four Championship. The women’s version of the team or the event is then understood as the substandard, she said.

“There’s been this push to eliminate those practices as a way to symbolically include women in sports,” she said.

But the case of the Lady Volunteers is complex, she said. The women’s athletic department there took what started as an exclusionary or separatist practice and transformed it into a practice for empowerment.

Few well-known women’s sports programs still have a brand that includes a female moniker attached to a mascot, aside from the Lady Vols at Tennessee and Lady Lions basketball team at Penn State University.

Others surely exist at smaller colleges as official or unofficial names, said Kristine Newhall, a professor at the McCormick School of Sports Management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Separate names tend to be more prevalent in the south, Newhall said. Examples still in use today include the basketball teams at the University of Central Arkansas, where the men play as the Bears and the women as the Sugar Bears, and at Kentucky State University, where the women's teams go by Thorobrettes and men's go by Thorobreds.

Whether the names designate some version of inferiority depends to some degree on the words themselves, she said. Adding the suffix “-ette” onto a mascot used to be popular, but that’s not widely accepted anymore, she said. The undertone of the term “lady” may be more debatable.

But in today’s environment, it’s still problematic for Newhall because there’s a message in the words we use, she said.

Lady has historically signified being polite and proper. Nobody would ever consider calling the men’s basketball team the “gentleman Vols.” So, why, she asked, is there an expectation for women athletes to be “ladies?”

That limits women’s ability to negotiate their own identity as athletes and to decide how aggressive they want to be, for example.  

 “In this moment, I think that ‘lady’ is demeaning,” she said. “It has too many historical connotations that disadvantage female athletes.”

Newhall understands the fans who are proud of the program's origins and achievements. She’s extensively studied the birth of Title IX and the creation of women’s sports departments at colleges.

“I know the struggle coaches like Summitt went through,” she said. “I don’t want that to get lost, but I don't think it will just by dropping the ‘lady.’ ”

Trying to respect the history and tradition isn’t a valid enough reason to keep the name, she said, especially with the apparent gender equity issues already at Tennessee.

The university recently settled a lawsuit that alleged age and gender discrimination after the consolidation of its women’s and men’s athletic departments in 2012. Another discrimination lawsuit is still pending. The three plaintiffs in that case worked with the women’s athletic teams, and have said they were paid less than similar employees who worked with men’s teams.

But Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, said she agrees with fans who say that the term Lady Vols has become a source of pride and respect.

“It’s about tradition," she said. "I never found the moniker Lady Vols offensive and I still don’t.”

She also cautioned against interpreting words such as feminine or ladylike as negative characteristics in sports.

“That reinforces the idea that feminine can’t be strong, that feminine can’t be powerful,” she said. "We have to be very careful not to fall into that trap.”

One thing that’s been missing from the discussion so far, Kane said, is how the rest of the women’s coaching staff at Tennessee feels about the Lady Vols logo.

Athletic Director Dave Hart has said that the university’s athletes and coaches were consulted about the decision. The university’s announcement, though, didn’t include any quotes from coaches outside the women’s basketball program.

A spokesman for the athletic department said the decision has generated some criticism, but there’s also been a lot of positive feedback from the fans and alumni who think it’s a good idea to have one consistent logo across academics and athletics.

Whiteside, the Tennessee professor, also said the opinions of the women’s coaching staff were important in this case.

Women today still don't have many key positions within top sporting circles, she said. It's hard in this case to know whether the women were disenfranchised without knowing more about how the decision was made, or rather, who made it.

The history of the Lady Vols name is grounded in what the women in the athletics department at that time wanted, she said. Hopefully, the same is true of the decision to change the name.  

 “If the goal is equity, then women’s voices and opinions have to be heard and incorporated in the decision-making process.” 

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct the name of Erin Whiteside.)

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