KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's decision to eliminate the Lady Volunteers nickname in all sports but basketball is the latest move in a nationwide trend of schools moving away from separate team monikers for men and women.
The difference this time is the level of protests.
Tennessee announced in November that all women's teams — other than its storied basketball squad — would be nicknamed the Volunteers and would adopt the "Power T" logo used by the men's teams starting in 2015-16. Tennessee officials said it is an attempt at branding consistency.
Opponents have been vocal.
Fans sent a petition to Tennessee President Joe DiPietro seeking to preserve the Lady Vols nickname and logo for all women's sports. Susan Whitlow, a Lady Vols basketball season ticket-holder who helped spearhead the drive, said the petition now has over 16,000 signatures. Rallies have been held before games and Board of Trustees meetings, and the bringbacktheladyvols.com website includes about 35 letters from former Tennessee athletes.
"I think they underestimated the anger they've caused in the Lady Vol fan base," said Tennessee state Rep. Roger Kane, whose daughter Holly was a track team member from 2007-11.
Kane sent a letter to the trustees asking that they reconsider the school's decision. The letter was signed by 45 legislators. James Murphy, the board's vice chair, emailed a reply that "we continue to hold that the decision in this matter rests with the Knoxville campus administration."
Tennessee's choice isn't unusual.
An Associated Press survey of all 65 schools from the five major conferences found that at least 28 had separate nicknames for men's and women's teams at some point in their histories. Only seven continue that practice, and in most cases they only have separate nicknames for certain women's teams. Texas Tech uses the Lady Raiders for women's teams in sports that also have men's teams: basketball, tennis, golf, track and cross country. LSU uses a similar strategy. An eighth school, Southern California, uses Trojans and Women of Troy interchangeably.
The only school other than Tennessee to have separate nicknames for all women's teams is Oklahoma State, where the men are the Cowboys and women's teams are the Cowgirls.
Tennessee's official transition date is July 1 to coincide with its switch to Nike as its apparel provider. Nike had conducted a brand audit of Tennessee that suggested maintaining the Lady Vols nickname and logo would be inconsistent with the university's "One Tennessee" theme.
School officials said Nike offered no formal recommendations and that the university made this decision on its own.
"We're moving as one," athletic director Dave Hart said. "We've adopted the 'One Tennessee' mantra, if you will, and we're moving forward as one. It's been very gratifying internally because it's very real. We've become one Tennessee."
Critics say the change takes away something that set Tennessee apart from other schools and damages a tradition that had been built for decades. School officials noted the women's basketball program will continue to be known as the Lady Vols out of respect for the legacy established by former coach Pat Summitt, who led Tennessee to eight national titles. That doesn't sound right to those who believe the nickname should be used for all women's teams.
"They said they were going to create a huge rebranding of the athletic department and turn it into this 'One Tennessee' brand," said Leslie Cikra, a former Tennessee volleyball player who started savetheladyvols.com. "Keeping women's basketball as the Lady Volunteers completely refutes their argument that they're trying to rebrand."
At least one women's group has no problems with the switch.
Deborah Slaner Larkin, the chief executive of the Women's Sports Foundation, would like to see all schools remove the "Lady" tags from nicknames of women's teams. Larkin said using the "Lady" term at the front of a nickname "makes it seem not as important" as the men's teams.
"You have to treat them equally," Larkin said. "It's from the top down. When women are differentiated from men, it looks like the men are the top line and the women are second. We know that's not true. Women should be treated equally. It all comes down to respect. While people might not think they're denigrating women or the female athletes by doing that, we feel it is such."
Some backers of the Lady Vols logo say Tennessee represents a special case because of the tradition and brand established by Summitt.
"It's their name," said Mollie DeLozier, who has helped lead rallies to preserve the Lady Vols nickname and logo. "It's what they're known by. It's the rich history they have. You take that away, that's taking away part of someone's identity."