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‘Lady Dragons’: Is gender name for sports teams empowering or patronizing?

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Lady Dragons Survey

This week the Index-Tribune is holdling an online survey on the use of the term ‘Lady Dragons.’ What do you think — should it be retired?

Take our poll here.

While the country is glued to TVs this month to unravel the final episodes of “Game of Thrones,” a lesser drama is playing out at Sonoma Valley High School. Both have ladies and both have dragons. But only at the high school does anyone have a problem with that.

Sonoma resident Deirdre Dolan wrote to the Index-Tribune last week observing that, “disturbingly, the girls high school teams are often referred to as ‘Lady Dragons,’ rather than just ‘Dragons,’ as are the boys.”

A cursory glimpse at the Index-Tribune’s sports headlines show the examples abound: “Sonoma’s Lady Dragons stand up to league-leading Vintage High,” “Lady Dragons cagers hunt for Vine Valley wins,” and “Lady Dragons tough out win against Napa,” among others.

In her letter to the I-T, Dolan, a former high school athlete and human resources professional who retired to Sonoma, goes on to cite an admittedly archaic definition of “lady” as someone “not able to stand alone; dependent.”

One must scroll down to find the definition Dolan cites in her source, dictionary.com. The site defines “lady” first as “a woman who is refined, polite, and well-spoken; of high social position or economic class.” But under the use of “lady” as an adjective, the web dictionary defines it as “sometimes offensive, being a female” – with the example given: “a lady reporter.”

According to former Index-Tribune sports editor Bill Hoban, the use of “Lady Dragon” to refer to the female sports teams at Sonoma Valley High School has been around for some time. “I can’t remember not using it and that goes back 22 years,” he said.

Former Index-Tribune owner Bill Lynch said the origins of “Lady Dragons” start with Steve Serafini, the longtime sports editor who preceded Hoban. “Not sure when,” he coined the term, Lynch recalls. “Retire it please,” he adds.

For his part, Serafini recalls that when he started as the paper’s sports editor, in 1991, he got flak from readers who objected to the term “Dragon girls.”

“So I changed it to Lady Dragons, and I never got a complaint,” he said – giving legs to the legend that it was the press who coined the term in the first place.

But it’s not just Serafini or Hoban who have used “Lady” to refer to female school sports teams. According to a 2015 article in the Tennessean, a USA Today publication, at that time 95 NCAA schools used the term “Lady” for their women’s team.

The same article quotes Ketra Armstrong, a University of Michigan professor, who believes no distinction should be made between men’s and women’s sports. “I think if we get rid of that ‘Lady’ moniker… it’s really going to help create this unified identity for consumers, for the athletes and for the entire university that is being represented.”

So while the modifier “lady” is not uncommon in sports, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.

Dolan points out that merely by applying an adjective, the value of the boys and girls teams is differentiated. “Why is the gender adjective applied only to the girls’ sports teams?”

The adjective issue was apparently of concern to Armstrong as well. “I think it has created this binary: the norm and what’s out of the norm, the good and what’s not so good, this is the real sport and this is the other sport,” she is quoted in the Tennessean.

Lady Dragons Survey

This week the Index-Tribune is holdling an online survey on the use of the term ‘Lady Dragons.’ What do you think — should it be retired?

Take our poll here.

Kerry Benefield, sports reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, said other area secondary schools including Petaluma, St. Vincent and Cloverdale high schools, sometimes use the term “lady” to refer to their girls sports teams, but expressed her disapproval. “Never. Ever. Gross,” said Benefield.

School mascots are usually either predators or warriors — examples abound — chosen to intimidate opponents. Sonoma Valley High School’s mascot, the Dragon, falls in the first category, a legendary creature which, a common figure in ancient Chinese myth, became widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages. In modern times, the dragon is well known in fantasy, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” the Harry Potter series, and George R.R. Martin’s writings that form the basis of “Game of Thrones.”

Given the quasi-medieval landscape of “Game of Thrones,” the modifier “Lady” makes some kind of sense, evocative of the ladies of court. Other mascots are not so easily modified: Lady Greyhounds, Lady Bulldogs and Lady Wolves, for instance.

Just how widespread Lady Dragons term has become, at least since Serafini’s recollection of the early-1990s goes, is signified even by the current year’s uniform of the JV softball team, with “Lady Dragons” loud and proud across the front.

“The girls frankly don’t care,” said softball coach Mike Fanucchi. “I have asked them (because) the school has been approached by a teacher that feels it’s inappropriate and feels all uniforms and paperwork that say Lady Dragons should be changed.” The JV uniforms are being retired at the end of the year, Fanucchi said.

Athletic director Mike Boles confirmed that “Our uniforms do not have the term ‘Lady’ on them and as we purchase other miscellaneous items, we are conscious of removing the term,” but he would not say it was an official decision of his department or the school.

Update: Since we went to press with this story, SVHS Principal Justin Mori confirmed Boles's position. "As Mike previously mentioned, the school is not identifying a difference in reference to our male and female athletics. Miscellaneous items could refer to practice jersey's, warm ups, or any other pieces of a uniform we provide to students. We did have a teacher share their thoughts, however, we had already heard from community members and had identified areas where changes would occur."

Laura Stanfield, whose four girls graduated from SVHS, spoke for two of them. “Amy and Emma never complained about being called Lady Dragons, but when asked they would say they prefer to be called a Dragon.” Both were recently athletes at the school.

Others who responded said if the girls are called Lady Dragons, the boys should be called Men Dragons or Gentlemen Dragons — although, in keeping with medieval vernacular, it might be more accurate to say “Lord Dragons.” In fact when asked about this term, swimming coach Jane Hansen — who initially responded, “I would probably just say “Dragons” because you don’t say “Boy Dragons” — said, laughing, “If you are going to say Lord Dragons, then I think you can say Lady Dragons.”

Then she, too, came back to the adjective issue: “Otherwise it differentiates from Dragons.”

Jann Thorpe, who has coached in the district for 17 years, said that the girls basketball program has always been called “Lady Dragons,” and argued that it’s not just simply a way to differentiate between the boys teams and the girls – it’s a way to empower them.

“The girls have never questioned why we are called the Lady Dragons,” she told the Index-Tribune in an email. “They have embraced this as part of the tradition, as well. We feel like Lady Dragon is almost the opposite of what some of those (are) complaining about. We think we are some pretty badass girls that compete, that are tough, and are empowering each other through our sport.”

Senior Annie Neles backed up the coach. “I think that the term ‘Lady Dragons’ is powerful,” said Neles, a varsity athlete in soccer, basketball and softball, and named this year as SVHS’s girl Athlete of the Year.

“I remember being a little kid and coming to girls basketball games at the high school,” said Neles. “I remember getting excited about the day I would be a part of the Lady Dragons. It’s kind of disappointing to be a part of an era where people think the term is demeaning. I understand where people are coming from but personally I’m proud to be a Lady Dragon.”

Still, the question of whether or not it’s time to retire the term, as Lynch urged, might not be up to the athletes to decide. When athletic director Boles responded to Dolan’s original message, he said the school was “conscious of removing the term.”

“I can speak for the SVHS athletic program and ensure you we are attentive to the effect on our female student-athletes,” he replied to Dolan. “We are all Dragons!”

Even the ladies.

Email christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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