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.