Thursday, June 30, 2022

Column: Why proper terminology matters for women's sports

April 5, 2022
<p>The Michigan State University women’s basketball team cheers during the Spartans&#x27; 65-46 win against Northwestern on Jan. 16, 2022. </p>

The Michigan State University women’s basketball team cheers during the Spartans' 65-46 win against Northwestern on Jan. 16, 2022.

Photo by Tyler Smith | The State News

It’s not necessarily something we think too hard about before we speak.

To most, even myself, girls and women are the same general term, used to describe anyone representing and identifying as the female gender.

But that’s not the true definition. Now, how we as a society got to the point where we began interchanging the two terms so casually remains unknown – because it’s definitely not the same for differentiating boys and men – but a few fellow female sports journalists have their opinions, as do I.

It could be due to the societal projection of the female image, how society wants women to look and act, and how sports, where you need to be powerful and strong, goes against this entirely. It could be to make female athletes less potent versions of themselves to fit them into this strategically small box, the unconscious stereotypes and fulfill the grotesque male desire.

Proper terminology usage has become a more prevalent issue to address and fix over the last few months, especially on Twitter.

The AP Stylebook defines boy or girl as: “Generally acceptable to describe males or females younger than 18. While it is always inaccurate to call people under 18 men or women and people 18 and older girls or boys, be aware of nuances and unintentional implications.”

These nuances and unintended implications can be, for example, referring to Black males of any age and in any context as boys. The AP Stylebook said that doing this can be perceived as demeaning and call to mind historical, out-dated language used by some to address Black men.

But, race-related coverage when it comes to age differentiation is a whole other story and right now we’re focusing on why ‘girls’ and ‘women’ need to quickly become independent of each other. 

Joanne Gerstner, professor of sports journalism at Michigan State University and creator of Open Court, wrote it simply and effectively:

“It diminishes the adult aspect of women.”

And she’s right.

Like I said earlier, men are always called men and less so as boys, unless it’s in a cutesy or colloquial way, Gerstner noted. You never see anything like #boyboss or #boypower trending on Twitter. However, #girlboss and #girlpower are slung around and have become cemented slogans for women, whether they wanted it or not. Gerstner said she sees this as a way to portray women as, and ultimately make them feel, less empowered.

Maddy Hudak, who holds many positions down south as a writer for USA Today’s SaintsWire, a reporter for ESPN covering the New Orleans Saints and a sideline reporter for Tulane University’s football program, agreed with Gertsner.

“Language and word choice matter, and distinguishing developmental terms exist for a reason,” Hudak wrote in another email. “It’s similar to the trajectory of infant to toddler, to child, to pre-teen, teenager, young adult, etc. There’s a subtle implication in calling women girls; that they aren’t mature, responsible adults.”

Remi Monaghan, a sports anchor and reporter with FOX 17 in Grand Rapids, added that it’s a respect thing, through and through, on top of being a professionalism, appropriateness thing.

“I was actually talking about this with my boss last night, because one of our local basketball teams calls themselves the ‘women’s team’ but they’re (in) high school,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay maybe there’s some (players) on the team that are 18 and legally considered women, but they’re also playing with 14 and 15-year-olds and those (players) are most definitely not women.”

Monaghan shared a really clear and concise way to explain the difference that she said she learned from her sorority advisor when she attended MSU. As the former president of Sigma Kappa (Alpha Tau), Monaghan often referred to her chapter members as girls.

No matter how old you are, it’s very easy to refer to other women your age as girls. I struggle with the same feat, and Hudak wrote that she also does. They’re your ‘girlfriends,’ your ‘group of girls,’ etc.

Her advisor, Samantha Tiller-Schenck, said to her one day when they were working together, “Remi, I think you should really refer to (them) as women.”

Monaghan obviously didn’t quite understand it at first. Why did it matter so much when these women were all 18 to 22-years-old, same as herself?

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And Tiller-Schenck ended up sharing with her exactly what Monaghan had said to me at the start of the call: It’s a respect thing.

“(She told me), ‘You are their chapter president, you lead them and this is an organization and a group and you would like the same respect from them that you’re trying to give to them,’” Monaghan noted. “Which was really interesting and I never would have thought of because, again, they were a group of my peers.”

Ashlee Woods, sophomore sports editor at the Crimson White, Alabama’s student-newspaper, said that there seriously has to be a distinction. When it comes to professional sports especially, Woods said that using the term girls to refer to the women in the programs invalidates their position and lessens them and what they worked through and for, to an extent.

So, what is the initiative that needs to be taken? Where do we go from here, to mend our wrongs as a society?

Gerstner thinks this discussion needs to be bigger. She wrote in an email that she makes a point of bringing this topic up in her journalism courses, because she notices a lot of this issue even within the Spartans’ own athletic department.

“A lot of MSU female athletes refer to themselves as girls or MSU coaches call their (women's) teams as girls,” Gerstner explained. “Taking a moment to think about the why behind the meaning is important. High school athletes are girls. Women go to college, and women play for MSU.”

Monaghan added that we really need to remove the Lady we place in front of female sports teams. They are the Spartans, not the Lady Spartans. They are under the same entity as the men’s team, they wear the same colors as the men’s team and therefore deserve the same recognition as the men’s team.

While there are a select few schools who have made a strong market off being the Lady version of their mascot, such as the Tennessee Lady Volunteers and the Penn State Lady Lions, exclusivity is what drives groups apart. Especially for a sport like basketball, where it’s common for women and men to both play the sport with the same rules.

Monaghan said when she was down with KTEN covering Texoma, she noticed this was a bigger issue and Arkansas Tech actually had separate mascots for their men’s and women’s teams – the Wonder Boys and the Golden Suns.

“If you were to ask a veterinarian or somebody who studies animals, the only difference between a male tiger and a female tiger is their genitalia, their physical makeup. There is not a different name for the female version of tiger. (Tigerettes do not exist),” she said.

Awareness, thoughtfulness and really thinking through all of our words are necessary actions to accomplish change and be an impactful journalist. Gerstner said that we are the ones in control of what we report and we need to act as such, correctly and thoroughly discussing things to change the narrative and make sure we are being insightful of the communities we are not a key part of. For example, men being more cognizant of women and their struggles and white people being more cognizant of Black people and their struggles.

Learn what it takes to build another community of humans and, rather than removing “bricks” to crumble the foundation as if you’re in an intense game of Jenga, reinforce them.

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