Saturday, April 14, 2007

Don't be a Jennie: Get your sports terms right.

Talk about a tenacious, aggressive defense. Oklahoma’s basketball players used their feet to cut off angles and their hands to knock passes away to limit Marquette to a single free throw in the final four minutes of a recent NCAA tournament game. The 10-1 run enabled the Sooners to complete a 78-47 rout and reach the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time.

How did the Oklahoma women’s team do it? "I would like to play man-to-man defense the whole game and just dog teams,” said head coach Sherri Coale, “but you can't always do that."

Some would argue her team could never do that. How can women play man-to-man defense? That’s a question worth investigating.

A college journalism adviser recently asked me a similar question. How can we call infielders first, second and third basemen when they are clearly female? She suggested several options, including citing players in this manner: “Jane Smith, first base, hit a home run.” This could create more confusion than clarity. We have changed the names for many terms during the past two decades – and for good reason. A police officer, board chairperson and firefighter are more accurate than their counterparts that used to end with 'man.' Women also work in these professions. Retaining 'man' insinuates that only men can do these jobs.

In baseball, first baseman is accurate. Man-to-man defense is equally correct in men's basketball. Most sports positions, though, are more neutral: center fielder, catcher, forward and guard, among them. In this case, I believe readers understand these terms transcend gender. Clearly, women can play just as aggressively on defense as men, and women can play equally as well as softball position players. (Just try slamming a shot down the third baseline against some women’s team – that is, if you can even connect with a pitch from the likes of Jenny Finch.)

More troubling for me is the use of adding 'Lady' to the names of school mascots. This is much more demeaning – and, in some cases, they are also illogical. (Lady Bulls? Lady Rams? C’mon.) We have Lady Tigers, Lady Bulls, Lady Eagles, Lady Panthers and Lady Cardinals, among many others. These ‘lady’ tags are like pats on the head, something that patronizes the efforts of talented athletes. A female alum of Clemson is not a lady alum. So why is a female athlete there a Lady Tiger?

Some nicknames are a little absurd like UMass’s ‘Minutewomen,’ Central Arkansas State’s addition of ‘Honey’ to its regular nickname of Bears, and Northland College’s ‘Lumberjills.’ (Yes, I know female lumberjacks are called lumberjills, but it still seems as ridiculous as calling blackjack dealers blackjills.) Central Missouri State is much more creative, using ‘Jennies' to counter the regular nickname of ‘Mules.’

Certainly, we all need to be more sensitive. As journalists, our words carry more power than we know (just ask Don Imus). We need to recognize and alter gender bias whenever possible, regardless if we report on TV, print or online. A recent study reveals that female athletes are frequently called ‘girls’ and ‘young ladies’ on televised games, whereas broadcasters typically call male athletes ‘men’ or ‘young men.’ Education can help alter those equally patronizing labels.

But when it comes to man-to-man and first baseman, I do not know what can be done. Perhaps, I’m wrong (or hypocritical) in my assessment, but I believe these terms are fine to use in sports stories. It would be fun, however, to see a sports reporter write about her team’s tenacious woman-to-woman defense. But remember, you read it here first.



Chet Piotrowski Jr. said...

I think to an extent journalist are shooting themselves in the foot with trying to be sooooo pc ALL the time. I believe the general public isn't as stupid as some members of the media insist behind closed doors. The consumer is very saavy and know when he/she sees garbage. I say leave it as man to man. It's defense. It's not rocket science. It's not a matter of life and death. I haven't seen NOW get up in arms about basketball wording.They've got better things to do. Like trying to figure out why the number of women sports writers and photographers don't equal their male counterparts.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, two points. One, the Lady tag is as demeaning as you want it to be, I guess. Certainly the Lady Vols get more respect than the men's team. (I do have a friend who insists on calling them the Lord Vols, though...) My sister is a firefighter who insists on that but on firstbaser or whatever, and cheerfully plays man-to-man. So maybe I don't know, either. But Two - whatever else you do, be consistent: don't say firstbaseman for men and firstbaseperson for women, the way some people say 'chairman' and 'chairperson'. That just makes 'woman' a dirty word.

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