Come on, Lionesses?

Today, the USWNT plays The Lionesses of England. In Leander, Texas, the local public high school girls soccer team is the Lady Lions.

When I first started my job starting a school’s athletic department, a few miles from the Lady Lions home base, I was a part of lots of fun conversations. Many times, these conversations were with a group of parents or our brand new athletics booster club, and I learned a lot from them. One of these conversations was whether or not we should call our girls teams the “Lady Archers”, our school mascot being the Archers. More often than not, I found myself in the minority, arguing against the Lady. From my perspective, it was unnecessary and borderline offensive to the girls’ teams to do so. Maybe if the mascot was by definition male… Stallions? Geldings? then there should be an alteration. Even then, I may have been tempted to say a mascot swap was in order before I endorsed Lady Stallions (Mares? Fillies?). I reached out to several girls who took athletics seriously and asked them what they thought, and they more or less lined up with my instincts. Beyond the conversations mentioned in this paragraph, I have no idea how anyone else feels about this (which makes it particularly unnerving to publicize). It’s not really discussed, but as someone immersed in athletics, I’ve observed the landscape and formed an opinion on it over time. This post is not just me clarifying my own opinion to myself, it’s also an attempt to find out what other people think (especially the girls/women who are/were Lady Mascots).

Now that I’ve been around and understand the area and history better, I realize the issue is more complex than my first reaction. A large number of schools nearby still add the “Lady” on their jerseys and publications, and to a large degree the parents I was having these conversations with were primarily operating from their own first-hand experience (and nostalgia). It’s not inherently a bad thing, and I’m sure there have been positives to it, especially back when girls high school sports were just starting out. Still, I’m glad that we didn’t go that route.

I love being an underdog, and I definitely enjoy that aspect of working with girls in athletics. I like telling people I coach high school basketball, and watching them realize later on in the conversation that I’m talking about girls. To me, an athlete is an athlete. A competitor is a competitor. There is no point in going out of your way to specify someone is a female athlete any more than saying someone is a female student.

“Going out of your way” seems to be the key concept here. Much of this post is basically a record of an internal debate I’ve been having for a while now, trying to reconcile two viewpoints. Can I simultaneously be against adding “Lady” in front of high school girls teams (assuming we aren’t adding “Gentlemen” in front of the boys), and be okay with adding “Women’s” in front of March Madness, or World Cup?

There is a universe in which I pivot to how strange? outdated? using the word “Lady” is in the first place (a constant reminder to compete in a ladylike manner?), but I think contrasting it with Gentleman will suffice for now.

The problem many leagues have now is one of branding. Some sports, and certainly many major sporting events, are strongly associated with men. If you say football or hockey, the first assumption is men, if you say volleyball or softball, it’s the opposite (maybe someday I’ll go out of my way to coach men’s volleyball). Sports like basketball and soccer are in the middle, and tie goes to history and popularity. March Madness? It’s unlikely women’s college basketball will ever be on equal footing, no matter how much the women’s game develops. Even more so with the World Cup. To be fair, there are a bunch of World Cups. Rugby has a world cup. Cricket, the same. But, if someone says World Cup and stops there, the assumption has to be Men’s Soccer. It’s the most-watched sporting event in the world, dwarfing the Super Bowl (1.12 billion for the WC Final to 100 million for the Super Bowl in 2018). That is why men’s soccer world championship is called the World Cup and women’s soccer equivalent is the Women’s World Cup. Women’s athletics have the same frustrations, in some ways, as other overlooked and under-appreciated men’s sports (sorry, rugby. cricket? #sorrynotsorry).

This problem could be solved, in some ways, by just changing the names of things. If you’re tired of being the fifth-most-popular World Cup, call your tournament something else. [By the way, I wince when United States teams call themselves “World Champions” when they only compete in North America. Yes, the NBA is considered the best men’s basketball league in the world. No, you aren’t actually defeating other continental league champions along the way to the NBA Finals. Upsets do happen, in sports, sometimes. As they say, “that’s why you play the games”.] When talking about girls basketball, I often describe it as a different sport than boys basketball. Sure, there is overlap, but you can’t just bring the same expectations, drills, techniques, and systems, and expect to succeed… that is true for all sports as you go from youth to pro, but I would say these differences persist at every level between men’s and women’s basketball. Honestly, I would be fine with a re-brand for the girls version. Handball and netball are already taken, but give me a few days and I could come up with something.

The argument against equal pay and equal treatment (salaries, field conditions, tv coverage, etc.) is based in the free market. TV contracts, ticket sales, and so on, are worlds apart for the men’s and women’s world cups. I see this as a chicken and egg issue, though, wondering if coverage brings popularity, or the opposite. The reaction to Donald Trump’s election tells me many people think coverage > organic popularity. All publicity is good publicity, right? It’s strange to coach girls who are obsessed with basketball but don’t look up to any girls basketball players. It’s easy for young girls to say I want to be like Kyrie, Harden, Curry, whoever, they are on TV broadcasts and social media all the time.. Arike Ogunbowale? not so much. I’ve started a Women’s March Madness Bracket Challenge with my team, hoping it will encourage them to follow teams and players (and just watch any basketball, at all).

So, back to adjectives. I apologize for all of this, by the way. I’m just trying to figure out if I’m a hypocrite, and now you have to figure out where you stand on this important issue. If I apply my World Cup reasoning to high school basketball, then I should just be content saying “basketball” when I’m talking about boys and “girls basketball” when I’m talking about girls. After all, the boys were here first (history), and they have the name recognition (popularity). It’s not just a gender thing, I mean, we’ve all had multiple friends with the same first name, right? The outcome of those situations often are a reflection of power dynamics. Michael Jordan solved the problem of wanting to be famous and successful while being named Michael Jordan, when there was already an older, famouser, Michael Jordan, by including his middle initial, B. Now we can all talk about Michael B. Jordan, no clarification necessary. And we use other modifiers all the time in sports, I mean, if I’m not careful then my same logic could be used to argue against saying “high school” in front of basketball.

Ultimately, the team that has to add the most adjectives to make sure you know who they are is the loser in the communication war, and that’s just how life works. There is nothing to “solve” there. If you don’t like it, you can try to move up the rankings by gaining notoriety and respect, or just change your name. I mean, if the USWNT keeps winning World Cups, and the USMNT keeps failing to qualify, you would eventually expect to start thinking of the USWNT first when someone says “U.S. Soccer”, wouldn’t you?

If there is anything resembling a concrete takeaway here, it’s this: adjectives can be helpful. Unnecessary adjectives can be disparaging. The only time I really bristle at phrasing like this is when it doesn’t communicate anything but the implication of being second-tier. “So you have your athletes, and then you have your female athletes…” I don’t know why, particularly, or if it’s fair, but that’s what I hear with the “So these are the Archers, and those are the Lady Archers.” No, honey, mnmm. That is so not right.

Oh, and that new name for girls basketball? Jumpball. Ha.

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