Mascots are mascots, no ‘lady’ about it

A few months back, at the beginning of basketball season in Georgia, I not-so-jokingly asked my boss to use “Gentlemen” in a headline.

I had two stories from the same school and had to differentiate the basketball teams. So if I was to use “Lady (name)” I was going to use “Gentlemen (name)” too. This is how my mind works.

My boss gave me a quizzical look and said these were the kinds of quandaries you don’t really get from male sports writers.

The use of “Lady” in sports has always been irritating to me. It’s something I’ve never, ever understood. I grew up a Dryden Lion and hated being dubbed a “Lady Lion.” I just want to be a lion, dammit, because that’s what we are, the Dryden Purple Lions.

I’m also a Brockport Golden Eagle, but I don’t remember “lady” being used much in college. To the Sports Information Department’s credit (and disclaimer, I completed a practicum there back in the day), I couldn’t find “Lady Eagles” in the articles I searched this morning.

“Lady” has always felt like an antiquated qualifier in sports. I see the argument that it differentiates the girls and boys side of a sport, but it gives the boys the rights to the actual school name and gives the girls’ teams a feeling of being somehow lesser. They are the “ladies.” But boys do not have to be “gentlemen.” Or any other type of descriptor, for that matter.

Before I sat down to finally write this piece, I wanted to see if this was an issue only I saw as important or if others had also spoken out. The Statesman (Austin, Texas) had a great piece on doing away with the use of “lady.” And, while I don’t think the gender of a writer is important, I realize to many it matters. A male sports writer, Michael Adams, wrote this article, saying for years he “had an internal struggle with referring to a girls’ team as the Lady (insert team mascot here).”

“I’ve never liked it and always found it degrading, whether that was the intention or not.”

Last fall, as I was starting my winter of trying like crazy to avoid this word, colleges were taking the steps to move away from it themselves. A letter to the editor at the University of Delaware’s student newspaper, The Review, spoke against he use of “Lady Hens.” It’s absolutely worth a read, and sparked change in how the sports section wrote about its women’s sports teams.

As the Huffington Post writes, some schools find that the “Lady” in the team name is part of the tradition and identity. In the case of the “Lady Vols,” I can see that argument. It’s along the lines of the mascot for Cairo High School, one of my local schools. The boys are the Cairo Syrupmakers and the girls are Cairo Syrupmaids. They were named for the cane syrup (pronounced sir-up down in these here parts) made in Cairo years and years ago.

While using “maids” makes me feel queasy if I think about it too much, I at least have to give the school a smidgen of credit. Cairo uses historical terms instead of relying on an unnecessary “lady” crutch to differentiate things that really don’t need it. Just don’t think about it too much.

In all truth, I am a “Dryden Lioness” because a female lion is, well, a lioness. Haven’t you seen The Lion King? So if a school feels the need to differentiate, it seems the smart thing is to use the female term or male term if there is one. And if not, as in the case of the Eagles, leave it alone.

But then what do you call the school? The Dryden Lions? The Dryden Lionesses? That’s the next conundrum, which is why as written in “Sexual Sports Rhetoric: Historical and Media Context of Violence,” this is still a sexist practice.

Such practices suggest that women are secondary, supplemental, dependent, lesser. Men are the central actors: The norm.

Generally, the school reverts to the use of the male term to describe its athletic departments. For example, Albany High School in South Georgia is called the “Albany Indians” as a whole. The girls wear jerseys with “Squaws.” (I know, this brings up a different issue entirely.) It doesn’t always have to be the case, though, as with the University of Delaware Hens. The school would go by Hens and the boys’ teams would be called Roosters. Although, this is incredibly rare and the possibility of the boys being secondary is highly unlikely to ever happen anywhere.

I don’t have the answer for that part of it all. However, it’s important to think about, especially for writers. We all need to think more critically about these types of things. Just take for example an immediately viral quote from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ (NHL) Morgan Rielly Friday:

You have to be able to put everything that is happening and just worry about doing your job. That’s what you are here to do. You are not here to be a girl about it. You just have to put your head down, do your job, work hard and try to make life easier on the people around you.

I first saw it on Twitter, then read the original Toronto Sun article, which made sure to explain “the comment was not said maliciously.”

I don’t know Rielly and have never spoken the man, though I am sure he didn’t mean it maliciously. Just like the football coaches who tell their players not to “run like girls” may not mean it maliciously. But it degrades what girls can do, which is, as written in a great piece by Robyn Flynn for SB Nation, whatever boys can do.

Women are extremely capable of athletic prowess, and have proven this to be true on numerous occasions. In fact, it was a year ago today that Team Canada’s women’s hockey team rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Americans 3-2 in overtime in Sochi to win the Olympic gold medal for the third straight tournament.

She writes, “Gender stereotypes are learned. It’s not something that you’re born with,” and then nails it with:

Maybe if the Leafs actually played like girls, they wouldn’t find themselves as perennial cellar dwellers in the standings.

Rielly apologized, saying it’s a phrase that needs to be taken out of our society. I’m not mad at Rielly. In fact, maybe unfortunately for him, he exemplified the real problem. Many don’t realize what they’re saying or doing or whom they’re hurting with these sayings and phrases. They don’t realize the kind of gender stereotyping they are promulgating.

Kind of like using “Lady Lions” when there’s no hard tradition there. There’s no real reason.

I go to great lengths to avoid using “lady” in my stories, even though it’s technically what teams go by. I try to omit it in press releases and pieces by stringers when every mascot reference — every single one — uses “lady” in it. If we write “the Thomasville girls basketball team” or “Central boys basketball team” I’ve already told you who I’m talking about. If I’m covering a game and have a photo of a girl going up for a shot, it seems obvious I am talking about the girls’ team. “Bulldogs win in overtime” is a fair headline since it’s clearly connected with the photo and story. There is absolutely no need to use “lady.”

Unless I can also use “Gentlemen.”



  1. Mark Lastinger · · Reply

    Perhaps the girls in the school should vote on it.

  2. ttesports · · Reply

    I haven’t used Lady in the 10-plus years I’ve been doing this. Edit it out of every story I see it in, local and AP.

    Mention at the start if it is boys basketball or girls basketball; boys soccer or girls soccer; etc; and then there is no need for it and also clear what team is playing.

    But that’s how we were taught at Mizzou, the best journalism school in the world.

  3. saltsman · · Reply

    Completely agree with this post. The large majority of high school mascots are gender neutral. Bulldogs are both equally male and female. Adding gender to one team (Lady ____ ) but not the other is sexist and communicates an unintended hierarchy that is directly opposed to the inequalities Title IX was passed to correct 44 years ago.

    In cases where a mascot is gender based (e.g. cowboys, minutemen) then girls teams may need to differentiate. I’m okay with that differentiation as long as equality occurs in the separation (e.g. cowboys, cowgirls). However, all to frequently, we still add sexist hierarchy in schools where it doesn’t exist in real life. The most egregious examples are where and gender and position are implied (e.g. Chiefs, Maidens). In 2016, High School sports appears to be the last place that explicitly prohibits females from becoming a Chief.

    As an aside, I’ve always been fascinated with how schools deal with sterilized mascots such as the Muleshoe (TX) Mules, or the Graham (TX) Steers. Sexism still creeps in (e.g. Graham Steers (male) and Lady Blues (female)) even when it could have been easily avoided (e.g. Graham Steers (male) and Graham Blues (female)). As a overly protective parent of a daughter in High School, I strongly support the movement to sterilize all high school male mascots ;-).

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