Lady Wildcats

In four months, my partner’s and my 13-year-old daughter will start high school.  She has been on a swim team since she was five, started playing soccer at 9, and has played lacrosse now for four years.  She likes sports.  She likes competition and challenge.  She likes her coaches and teammates.  I think she thrives on the structure, too.  My daughter and her teammates can go to their left as well as to their right, they can catch and throw, and they get the sense of movement on the field, where to be and when.  My daughter and other 8th graders are playing this season for the high school’s junior varsity lacrosse team, and the team is darned good.

When they get to high school in four months, are my daughter and her teammates destined to be the “lady” form of the team mascot?  Athletics teams are still famously divided along binary gender lines, which is complicated to begin with.  Nevertheless, if we work within this binary, then we should question the use of certain terms and how they shape our children’s perception of themselves and others.  While the boys are referred to as “wildcats,” the girls are referred to as “lady wildcats”—not only over the loudspeaker at the games, but also in the local newspapers and even on uniform jerseys.

Check out our local newspaper’s reporting on the performance of boys and girls at a recent high school track and field meet (April, 2018).  The reporting is clear, and I like celebrating the success of our young local athletes, but, once again, the boys are “wildcats” and the girls are “lady wildcats.”  Even the jerseys of the girls’ varsity and junior varsity basketball teams bear the moniker “lady wildcats.”

Readers will likely fall into three categories in their response to this blog post: (1) What’s the big deal?; (2) But, the girl athletes want to be called “lady wildcats”; and (3) Why call the girls “lady wildcats” if you don’t call the boys “gentleman wildcats?”. The following paragraphs should answer all three questions.

I grew up knowing that there were Lady Vols, Lady Huskies, Lady Cavs (and a long etcetera), but never getting the chance to see any of the women’s teams’ games or competitions televised.  “Ladies” trained, worked hard, refined skills, competed fiercely, but did so without visibility or recognition.  “Lady” in front of the name implied “less.”  In the meantime, when you heard about the Vols, Huskies, and Cavs, you asked yourself which of the many men’s teams would be featured on television on that day—football, basketball, baseball, or other higher-visibility sports?  The lack of modifier for the team mascot signaled importance, visibility, success.  They were the main show, the real deal, the ones to watch.  The more we receive this message, the more we believe it—all of us, every single one of us, unless we learn to step back and analyze the effects of the message. This message reinforces that big-money television and stadium contracts will go to men’s team sports and that even the most elite of women athletes—especially in team sports—will have few opportunities to pursue their athletic interests and talents beyond their college years.

Title IX was passed in 1972.  While many people interpreted the legislation as primarily to achieve equality in athletics in educational institutions, of course, it addresses far more than athletics: “Section 1681. Sex: (a) Prohibition against discrimination. No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (with a list of exceptions). The principal punishment for Title IX violation is the removal of federal funding from the particular educational institution.  Since 1972, not one school has lost funds, and so we might question interpretation and enforcement of Title IX across the board, and especially in athletics. (*See this 2014 HuffPost piece; this 2014 MSNBC post; this NCAA Title IX FAQ post).  For as much gender-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation as exist in our United States schools, the law is still stacked against any individual who comes forward.

The NCAA lists the three ways in which Title IX applies to athletics: participation opportunities; scholarships; and the “laundry list.”  The Women’s Sports Foundation explains these three prongs very clearly here.  On our local landscape, the questions of participation opportunities and the laundry list are the most problematic, as girls’ soccer and lacrosse compete for players, coaches, and practice space in the spring season, instead of being spread across fall and spring.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect this is to protect football practice and game space from the boys’ and girls’ soccer and lacrosse teams.  This becomes a Title IX issue in that football becomes the biggest sports opportunity for fall-sport athletes.

The fall-spring division also has implications for the laundry list prong, which works to ensure equity in locker room, practice, and game spaces and scheduling, equipment allocation, medical training access, travel budgets, coaching, and publicity.  If we did an audit of our local high school, we might well find that locker room spaces are unequal (I don’t know this; I’m just saying that an audit would be welcomed), that practice facilities and game times are squeezed due to the protection of football in the fall, that male coaches are paid more (I don’t know this; I’m just saying that assurances to the contrary would be welcomed), and that publicity efforts might favor boys’ sports teams in a few ways.  Calling the boys “wildcats” and the girls “lady wildcats,” thus making the girls less representative of the whole school, constitutes one signal that not everyone is on the same page about equity in public school athletics and, by extension, public school education.

I have made ample allusion here to boys representing the universal and girls representing the “other,” the difference.  Even if some girl-power ethos has girls and women reinforcing that “lady” mascots are to be cherished, the result brings us back to that message—girl athletes are perceived as other, lesser, and therefore less deserving of proper facilities, scheduling, and publicity.  This becomes universally accepted, or at least tolerated.  My partner teaches and coaches at our local high school.  For many years, he has raised this issue of the girls bearing this other nickname and having game times that are less inviting to fans.  The administration has been more responsive to these issues this year, varying practice and game times to be fairer to all involved, but still can’t seem to eliminate the use of “lady wildcats” over the loudspeaker at games and on jerseys.  This is progress, for sure.  We must keep in mind, though, that the compass north always points to man=universal and woman= other, and certain habits are extremely hard to undo.

No more Lady Whatevers, for whatever it’s worth.

Title IX Moments

At my university last week we celebrated the 45th anniversary of Title IX.  Programming included screenings of a film (“The Battle of the Sexes”) and a documentary (NCAA’s “Sporting Chance”), a poetry reading, a basketball game, a Title IX expert panel, and a visit and talk by Mia Hamm.  The anniversary week was sponsored in large part by the Department of Physical Education, Athletics, and Recreation, as well as by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and the student-run Contact Committee.  As a child of Title IX, I was delighted to hear stories about heroes like Bernice Sandler, Edith Green, Birch Bayh, and Billie Jean King.  As a scholar who works with Title IX issues, I was gratified to learn more about how the legislation came about and how it has survived repeated challenges.  Thank you again to all the organizers.

My mother was famous in our little hometown circle for making an unassisted triple play in a softball game.  We kids haven’t been able to piece together each element of her feat, but we are not at all surprised she was capable of it.  The story goes that her little sister made a hook shot from half court in one of her basketball games.  These were the women who had no Title IX, who effected their athletic feats through the sex-segregated Catholic school system that had softball fields and basketball courts for the girls.  Girls of their age at public school were assured no teams, coaches, fields, or equipment to play their sports, and certainly none of these girls and young women could imagine themselves as scholarship student-athletes at the college level.  As we all know now, this separation of resources for boys and girls and men and women has implications not only for athletics, but for life itself—opportunities to challenge ourselves, compete, understand teamwork, be coached and mentored and opportunities to be treated equally in school, be encouraged to study all the subjects, have women and men teachers, be recognized in the media, see an open horizon.

Title IX tells us that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

This short text is a really big deal.  We have seen the changes this legislation has brought for men and women in educational settings and specifically in athletics.  Of course, the legislation has been appropriately elastic in its recognition of other limiting factors for women and transgender individuals in the education context.  Title IX is supposed to offer protection against sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and against sexual violence and abuse for all individuals (all students, staff, faculty in the education workplace).  The extent to which it is allowed to offer these protections can vary from state to state and from United States President to United States President.  (*See this 2017 NPR piece about the North Carolina “bathroom bill” and this 2017 Gender Shrapnel Blog post about the current “president’s” pullback on Title IX protections.)  These protections might also be more precarious depending on gender identity, race, religion, and immigration status, which is why Title IX must work in conjunction with Title VI (protects against discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in federally financed programs) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, national origin).  In other words, as we celebrate the many triumphs of this 1972 legislation, we also have to be wary of the many ways in which interpretation and application of the law can be diminished.

Of course, no laws are enacted or enforced in a cultural vacuum.  Jim Crow laws were both a symptom of and the reinforcement of racial apartheid in the post-Civil War era, while current stop-and-frisk laws demonstrate a greater targeting of people of color.  The expanded Title IX guidance and enforcement under President Obama contrast sharply with the law’s shrinking applications under the current administration, a clear signal that the Groping Old President wishes to roll back protections for women and transgender individuals.

For these reasons and many more, the Title IX anniversary events at my institution both celebrated the advances made since 1972 and advocated for an awareness surrounding the legislation.  I learned a lot last week.  I learned that federal law (not state-by-state) protects against pregnancy discrimination.  I learned from one young man’s significant question to Mia Hamm, when he asked her, “What has been the role of men in fighting for equal pay in women’s sports?”, and when she answered with several examples of men’s sports individuals and teams that have gone to bat on this issue.  I learned that we need more young men asking this same question in all areas of Title VII and Title IX protections.  Legal and cultural change cannot happen without more support from more of the populace.  I learned that Mia Hamm’s accomplishments, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and generosity make her a true champion, a real inspiration.  When asked who her women athlete heroes were, Hamm said that the only women’s sports regularly on television were tennis and, every four years, women’s track and field.  Her two heroes?  Eighteen-time Grand Slam Champion Chris Everett Lloyd in tennis and USA Track and Field Hall of Famer Jackie Joyner-Kersee.  I should say!

In addition, several concepts were reinforced for me.  Our flagging soccer program for girls in our area, commented upon several times last week, is likely a result of the state of Virginia placing girls’ soccer and lacrosse in the same season—the spring—thereby forcing girls’ sports to compete for players.  The same is true, actually, for boys’ soccer and lacrosse, both offered in the spring.  The Title IX issue enters when we account for this crowding of the spring season: might it be because fields are limited, and the football field is protected from having to share with soccer or lacrosse in the fall?  It certainly seems the case that girls have fewer sports opportunities in the fall than they do in the spring and fewer in the fall than the boys do.  Nevertheless, the Virginia Department of Education has scant information on athletics offerings, which also needs to be rectified.  I also believe that LGBTQIA+ individuals at our local schools are under a greater threat of bullying than their straight peers—also a Title IX consideration.

As I’ve said elsewhere in the Gender Shrapnel Blog, the status quo is a mighty force, and we must be wary of its power.