Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Lady Volunteers: What's in a Name?

In my post yesterday on intellectual property law and The University of Tennessee's rebranding exercise, I noted my opposition to the abandonment of the Lady Volunteer brand.  Some have questioned my stand on this issue as (although not using these words) old fashioned, anti-feminist, etc.  Even my husband questioned me on the matter, asking: "How would you have felt if, in playing field hockey at Brown, the team was referred to as the Lady Bears?"  Of course, some team names are not meant to "go with" the moniker "Lady," in any event . . . .  :>)

Some do see this as a simple issue of shedding the "separate and unequal" status of women's athletics at The University of Tennessee.  I can see how an outsider might see things that way.  But the merger of the Knoxville men's and women's athletic departments two years ago (I will spare you the details) was accomplished in a way that is seen by some as sweeping inequality under the rug through homogenization that falsely signals equality to the outside world.  Suffice it to say, I am not persuaded that the issue is this simple.

Others have contacted me on Facebook and in private communications to point out additional aspects of the rebranding matter that relate to the word "Lady" in the women's athletics branding at The University of Tennessee.  On Sunday, Jack McElroy, the editor-in-chief of our local paper (whose son played soccer with my son back in the day) wrote an editorial [ed. note: this link is firewall protected and may only be available to subscribers] on this element of the branding controversy.  In the editorial, he traces the history of the word "lady" in reference to women--from a 25-year-old study finding its use demeaning to female athletes to its resurgence as "a comfortable term by which 21st-century women can address themselves" (citing to feminist writer Ann Friedman).  Today, I received an email noting this post by Bryan Garner, perhaps most well known to many of us as the editor of Black's Law Dictionary, on the "increasingly problematic" nature of the word "lady."  (Hat tip to Bryan Cave partner Scott Killingsworth for that reference.) These writings also do not point to a simple resolution of issues relating to the continued usage or abandonment of the Lady Volunteer moniker or brand.

The branding issue is, in truth, complex, even in our post-Title IX world.  Some of the complexities involve legal issues or have legal ramifications (as noted in my post yesterday); some do not.  Among other things, branding involves psychological and emotional reactions that are contextual.  Business lawyers involved in branding efforts will be of the most use to their clients if they take this complexity and context into account in engaging legal analysis and offering advice.  How would you, for example, advise a firm like Airbnb about legal issues relating to its branding challenges? The possibility of legal claims emanating from the non-intellectual property aspects of branding is something I hadn't earlier considered but now see as real.  I guess advising business clients on branding involves a lot more than trademark law . . . .


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