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Editorial: Should Sonoma slay the ‘Lady Dragon’?

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“Horses sweat, men perspire and ladies gently glow.” – Victorian-era etiquette dictum

Sonoma youth, be forewarned: This week, a bunch of middle-age buttinskies are going to be telling local teenage girls what should or should not offend them.

Brace yourselves, kids. Because there’s simply no other hand that can possibly play out when you combine modern-day political correctness, old-school patronization and adult-world obsession with youth sports.

The teen girls are simply going to have to let the gray-hairs have their say; commandeering kids’ games and sucking all the fun out is in our DNA. It’s what we do.

This time, however, the interference is quite well-timed to the moment in history – as calls for gender neutrality have found their strongest voices on high school and college campuses, with students demanding an end to the archaic binary structures that have been institutionalized in pedagogy for millennia.

This time, and for once, the adults may be the gender neutralizers.

It all started last week with a letter to the Index-Tribune from reader Deirdre Dolan, who took to task Sonoma Valley High School’s practice of naming its girl sports teams “Lady Dragons,” while the boy teams are just plain “Dragons.” It’s a question worth asking (and, frankly, a question that’s been asked before): Why aren’t the girl teams “Dragons” and the boy teams “Gentleman Dragons”? Or, logically, why aren’t they both simply “Dragons”?

Since the vast majority of high schools deal with their various teams by calling them, for instance, the Wildcat girls basketball team, or the Bulldog boys soccer team – why does Sonoma saddle the XX-chromosomed athletes with an extra modifier? And why one that signifies refinement and gentility?

Dolan’s inquiry led to an intriguing story in the I-T by Christian Kallen, who sourced various local coaches and athletes voicing yays and nays about the use of “Lady” in Dragon sports lore. Turns out one of the more interesting twists in the tale – at least to us here at the I-T – is that the “Lady” may have been bestowed upon the young women of Sonoma Valley High School about 30 years ago by then-Index-Tribune sports editor Steven Serafini, who recalled that he’d been taking heat for calling them “Dragon girls” and came upon “Lady” as a more dignified compromise.

With the “Lady Dragons” being referenced twice a week in the sports pages, eventually the term fell into common parlance and was soon unofficially – probably even unconsciously – adopted by the school itself as the name of its female sports teams.

Thirty years ago, referring to girls as “ladies” no doubt registered a firm zero on the Richter scale of offensive terms. It’s hardly a 7 even by today’s standards. But times have changed – not merely in the last 30 years, but in the last 30 months. Gender identity has new meaning; it’s more far reaching than simply an assignation of sex. It’s a matter of equality and individualism. And it can’t be assigned by anyone other than oneself – and most certainly not by a Bermuda-shorts-clad sports dude at the local paper.

If “he” and “she” can transition to include “they” or “them”; if Latina and Latino morph into Latinx – then Lady Dragon is certainly ripe for discussion. Based on the feedback the I-T has received, more adults see the problem with gender-qualifying girl teams than the kids themselves. Some female athletes at SVHS have all but given it a definitive, “meh.” But the SVHS girls are only renting the name for a few brief seasons; it’s the community as a whole that has to live with it.

So here’s the question: Should Sonoma Valley High School name its boy teams the Dragons, and differentiate its girl teams as the Lady Dragons?

The Chicago Tribune reported in 2017 on the increasingly rare, but still occasional use of “Lady” in several Illinois high school and college women’s teams. While most of the women sourced agreed it was somewhat patronizing, they weren’t about to organize the second coming of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956.

“I can see how it’s a little condescending. I don’t think of it much,” said a senior on the Lady Spartans basketball team.

The coach of the Nebraska-Omaha college basketball team, Lisa Carlsen, told the Chicago Tribune that with “the evolution of time, that whole Lady thing just goes away.” And she would know. Not only had her Mavericks team dropped “Lady” from its name a few years prior, but she’d played college basketball at Northern Illinois, back in the late 1980s when its men’s teams were the Bearcats and women’s teams the, er, Bearkittens.

At the very least, concluded the Tribune piece, the use of “Lady” in sports team names is “diminishing.” Though not quite yet at Sonoma Valley High.

Still, those troubled by “Lady Dragon” should take comfort in the fact that it could be worse. Much worse.

High school sports have been the incubators of some truly appalling team names over the years. Consider the Laurel Hill High Hobos (“Yay, homeless people!”). Or, how about a sis-boom-bah for the Texas Hereford High Whitefaces? The Rochester East High Orientals, anyone?

Bonaventure University once differentiated its men’s and women’s teams by the names Brown Indians and Brown Squaws. Illinois’ Centralia High School boys teams are still called the Orphans; its girls team are the Annies.

Illinois’ Freeburg High School Midgets would probably be the current nadir if it weren’t for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, whose racist moniker is so offensive that some sports publications refuse to print the name of the mascot and simply refer to team as Washington.

Sonoma’s lucky its controversy is merely over “Lady” – which may seem patronizing by today’s standards, but whose origins in Sonoma stem from something a bit more palatable: politeness.

Still, it’s time for Lady to go. If the Sonoma Index-Tribune started the whole “Lady” legacy, perhaps we can – in fact, perhaps we should – initiative the end of it. The girl teams and the boy teams at Sonoma Valley High are, after all, both Dragons – and within that chimeric emblem is where the heart of the school must lay.

As Jorge Luis Borges observed in his 1957 “Book of Imaginary Beings”:

“We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe. But there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination. It is… a necessary monster.”

In other words:

Go Dragons!

Contact Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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