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Monday, May 18, 2015

University of Tennessee's Deal With the Nike Devil

Don't get me wrong: I like Nike. Or I did. Used to wear their tennis shoes all the time before I outgrew sneakers and accepted high heels as status footwear for grown up girls. More Jimmy Choo than Just Do It these days.

But the Nike news coming out of Knoxville is disturbing, and is certainly drawing a lot of attention from University of Tennessee sports fans. It seems that UT is doing away with the Lady Vols designation for all its women's athletic teams EXCEPT for the basketball program. I've had issues with this since it was first announced, but the release of correspondence between UT and Nike have ratcheted my unease up to all-out anger.

Why? After all, you might ask (if you're not from Tennessee or a UT alumni) what's the big deal? The proposed branding change is to create "one Tennessee", with all the athletic teams (except women's basketball) moving to the power T/Volunteers logo.

Well, there are a couple of big deals, in my opinion.

First off, doesn't this proposal completely contradict itself? How is it "one Tennessee" if the women's basketball team continues to be called the Lady Vols? That makes it most definitely TWO Tennessee--the women's basketball team and everyone else. More like a "one Tennessee" with a "one Tennessee-A."

Maybe--MAYBE--if the basketball program was changing its branding along with the other women's sports, I might not be quite as piqued. That would most definitely fall into a "one Tennessee" branding, whereas the proposal most certainly does not.

Obviously, the groundwork for the national recognition and positive focus for the Lady Vols moniker was laid almost in its entirety by Pat Summitt and her basketball team. She literally built the program from the ground up over a span of four decades, and is easily the most revered and recognized coach anywhere in women's athletics--and is the winningest coach in all of basketball, men's and women's. No one can question or deny Coach Summitt's contribution to the Volunteer Nation and women's athletics as a whole, and her teams made the Lady Vols name feared and respected throughout the NCAA as a model athletic program.

But UT has NINE other women's sports teams: softball, volleyball, swimming, rowing, gymnastics, cross country, track & field, golf, and soccer. There's a Lady Vols Hall of Fame.  Lady Vols have 10 NCAA championships--8 in basketball, 2 in indoor track and field, and 1 in outdoor track and field. Lady Vols own SIXTY-EIGHT SEC championships. Half belong to the women's basketball team with 34. Volleyball has 9 titles, track and field 8, soccer 7, cross country 5, softball 3, and rowing 2.

How is it possible for all those other teams to have their logo, their brand, their NAME negated? Why would the university want to restrict the Lady Vols name to just basketball? It doesn't make sense. The Lady Vols name represents championship athletics, high academic standards, and great ambassadors for UT and Tennessee as a whole. Even the United States, as evidenced by the 30 gold medalists who wore the orange and white.

Secondly, when did UT give so much power into the hands of Nike? And why?

In documents recently released from UT regarding the rebranding and published by Deadspin, Nike had the following to say about the proposed change to the Lady Vols designation:

Because your brand has an emotional connection with your students, staff and alumni, it is critical to keep the development of the work confidential and on a need-to-know basis. 

Let's stop and think about that for a moment.

So secondly, where is the LOGIC in changing a brand that the students, staff, and alumni have an emotional connection with?

And what's the deal with the 'need to know basis'?  Last time I checked, the University of Tennessee is a state-funded university, responsible for and answering to the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee and the students, staff, and alumni. The administration is required to consider the opinions and preferences of those individuals, without question. Where does Nike get off telling a public institution to basically keep the brand change quiet so that people don't get riled up?

And where does the administration and athletic department of UT get off going along with such a blatant disregard of the wishes of its alumni, fans, and athletes?

Did Mike Hart stop to consider that the Lady Vols branding that is so easily recognizable because of the basketball program is a benefit to their other women's teams? That the Lady Vols across the chests of our softball team leads them into the super regionals this week automatically confers upon those players the same school pride and aura of invincibility it lent to our basketball team? That we, the fans of the University of Tennessee, cherish and are proud of the Lady Vols as a whole, no matter the sport?

Apparently not.

In the press release from UT announcing the change:

Following significant branding studies by both our University and the department of athletics as well as conversations with head coaches and student-athletes, we will implement the related changes that resulted from this collaboration on July 1, 2015," said Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart.
The women's basketball program was excluded from this transition because of the accomplishments and legacy of the championship program built by Coach Pat Summitt and her former players. The Lady Volunteers nickname and brand is truly reflective of Coach Summitt and her legacy and will continue to be associated with the Tennessee women's basketball team.

Could that have been any more insulting to the softball team? The volleyball squad? All the amazing young women who have worn the Lady Vols name with pride over the course of the last four decades?

 Saturday morning, a group of Tennessee fans, alumni, and former athletes came together to protect the abolition of the Lady Vols name. The purpose of the meeting? To present 23,000 signatures on a petition to the University to keep the brand as it is. According to an article from the Examiner, no one from UT even had the courtesy to show up despite speakers like former Undersecretary of Defense Dr. Sharon Lord.

Lady Vols donor Sharon Lord, who secured the first funding for UT women's athletics back in the '70s, started off the meeting by calling an SOS. "(The University) is dismantling what was once the more revered and respected women's athletic program in our nation," she says.

The website devoted to saving the Lady Vols says this in their mission statement:

The ‘Lady Vols’ is the most successful brand in women’s collegiate athletics.   It’s a name associated with 11 national championships, over 50 SEC championships, and a multitude of Olympians.   It’s a name associated with iconic basketball coach, Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in NCAA history and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  It’s a name that Lady Vols in all sports are fiercely proud of and are now fighting to keep.

 Diana Moskovitz, in her expose' of the Nike-UT Lady Vols conspiracy for Deadspin, has made the correspondence between the two parties available for all to see--and download. After perusing through more spin and PR-speak than I care to remember, I came away with one strong opinion. Nike talks a lot about helping the University "manage" the "excitement" and the launch of their new brand. And yet, that new brand hasn't generated excitement. It's generated anger, frustration, and the growing sense that the administration and athletic department of the University of Tennessee really doesn't give a rat's ass what anyone aside from Nike really thinks.

Not the athletes. Not the alumni. Not the staff. Not the fans.

Not me, not you.

Just...Nike.

By the way, Ms. Moskovitz's breakdown of the other NCAA programs who've undergone brand redesign is not only hilarious, but sobering.

"The report also notes that Nike wanted to “avoid the mark being demonic in nature,” despite the team literally being named the Sun Devils."

Yeah. Sure wouldn't want the Sun Devils to seem demonic in nature. Who'd Nike pay gazillions of dollars to for coming up with that brain trust of a comment? They'll probably decide the that central color of the daisies on the hill isn't orange enough for UT too. Idiots.

But finally, what's most sobering about this entire mess is exactly how much money and power the athletic apparel companies really have when it comes to dictating the course of NCAA universities and their athletic programs. Who would have thought that a company based in Oregon (whose state university has arguably the most hideous uniforms in all of college sports) would have the ability to come to Knoxville, Tennessee and command what that state-funded public university would do regarding its image, its branding, its fans--and then ORDER them not to let the cat out of the bag because those selfsame fans have an emotional attachment to the original brand?

To be blunt, collegiate athletics and professional athletics really are all part of the same money-generating beast, except that in collegiate athletics the massive profits go straight into the ledgers of the universities and the apparel corporations--money taken from the effort and skills of young athletes and the pockets of fans without any consideration for what either of those parties really wants.

Let's cut this down to the core, UT. If the athletes, fans, and alumni have an emotional attachment to the Lady Vols, then you'd be stupid to ignore that visceral response and try to retrain them to forget that branding ever existed. That emotional attachment keeps donor dollars pouring into your accounts and fan/alumni butts in the seats of your various venues. And if any company, even Nike, tries to convince you otherwise, then you'd best be prepared to handle the backlash.

There won't be any backlash on July 1 when this change is going into effect. There will be rage. And you've earned the right to feel the heat of that anger. As former volleyball player and Lady Vols Hall of Fame inductee Laura Lauter Smith said this past weekend:

My four little girls, they want to be a Lady Vol just like Mama. And it's sad that they ask 'why is the Lady Vol logo going away, Mama?' And I don't have an answer for them.

Unfortunately, I do. It's called greed, and the University of Tennessee administration and athletic department have fallen wholeheartedly into its pursuit.

For shame.

But there are still options for Lady Vols fans to consider, as I learned today when I called to discuss this issue with Paul Finebaum on his SEC Network show. Finebaum, recently named one of the 25 most powerful people in sports media and one of the 20 most powerful people in college sports by two different media organizations had this to say in response to my question:

"...I've been following this from a distance I don't know the details about why this is
 going down the road it's going.like everyone, I like the Lady Vols brand.I thought it spoke about Pat and everything else at the school. I have friends who live there and they don't like it either. I wish I could help you more. Maybe next week when we're down in Destin we can visit with Dave Hart the athletic director and maybe even the President down there and get their views and see where it is."

Stay tuned. Paul Finebaum rarely misses an opportunity to ask the hard questions. If nothing else, it'll be interesting to listen to what he--and they--may have to say. In his dual role as UT alum and nationally broadcast sports commentator about the SEC, his voice may be harder for the UT administration to ignore.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sharon De Vita: Love, Laughter, and her Legacy

A few days ago, the writing community and romance fans lost one of the true greats. Sharon De Vita passed away after a brief illness. Her loss cuts deeply, at least for me. And while writing a remembrance blog post isn't really my thing, I feel compelled to share with you my love and respect for Sharon and my absolute sorrow at her death.

I first met Sharon through Musa. We hadn't even opened our doors yet, and she submitted her novel The Estrogen Posse to me. My first thought was, "No way. Someone's playing a joke on me. There's no way that Sharon De Vita is submitting to us!" I mean, this was THE Sharon De Vita--NYT Bestselling author of over 30 books, winner of the RT Lifetime Achievement Award, beloved of Harlequin and Silhouette readers--why would this writer be sending ME her new novel?

But it wasn't a joke. Sharon, returning from a hiatus after the tragic death of her son, was taking her career down a new path. The Estrogen Posse was a departure from the light-hearted romances she was so well-known for. The manuscript clocked in at a hefty 150,000+ words, with elements of suspense and humor framing a recently divorced woman's quest for herself amidst murder, family turmoil, and a new romance. The first scene was a one-sided conversation between the protagonist, Ellie, and God.

And Ellie won the argument.

There was no way I was going to let that novel be published by anyone else. I'd made such a connection with the story--and its author--that I'd determined we would publish the book within the first hundred pages. We contracted the book within a few days. I edited the novel myself, and The Estrogen Posse was one of the three books we published on Musa's opening day. 

Can't think of another e-publisher who started off with such a writer/book combination, or one with a Janet Evanovich blurb on the cover. But what had started as a business relationship between Sharon and myself, morphed into an editor/author connection that was one of the most rewarding professional experiences I've ever had. By the time Musa opened for business, Sharon had become our one-woman encouragement team and biggest fan. She brought us other authors, who'd been screwed over by their traditional publishers releasing electronic versions of their books and paying them a few cents per sale. She bragged about our way of doing business, our transparency, and our support system.

Sharon was so important to us at Musa. Every time we saw her emails in our inboxes, we automatically felt good.  

What a rare gift that is! Think about it: online communication is somewhat sterile, especially in a business situation. Think of what kind of person you have to be to supersede that cold formality. Sharon was such a writer, such a wonderful person, that even in an email zipped out in two minutes flat she could evoke such warmth and sincerity and such caring that it could make four people she'd never met feel happy with just a few well-chosen words. That's why Sharon's books were so well-loved: she had such a gift with evocative language that her readers cared about her characters with the same kind of intensity that they cared about their best friends. The Kirkus reviewer for The Estrogen Posse saw the same thing: 
While working with these dark topics, the author skillfully weaves in a dose of levity without any heavy-handedness. As a result, readers jump between gasps of shock during the murder investigation and stints of uncontrolled laughter as Ellie’s ridiculous “posse” mobilizes into action. An emotional, fun-filled romp.
You see, Sharon cared about those characters and shared them with us in her books, just like she cared about us as individuals--and she shared those feelings so candidly and with such sincerity that it was impossible to doubt that she meant anything other than exactly what she said. Don't get me wrong: Sharon and I went toe-to-toe several times during the editing process. She could be just flat out ornery if she chose to. And then, once the  orneriness had passed, it was like the sun breaking through the clouds and banishing the storms from the horizon.

It's hard for me to accept that I'll never have that feeling again, that I'll never get another email or phone call from her to brighten a dark day, or that I'll never fall in love with another amazing story that came from her figurative pen. 

Sharon gave Musa another wonderful gift: her daughter, Jeanne, came to work with us at Musa and became such an integral part of the company that it was hard to imagine how we'd ever gotten along without her. Jeanne is another one like her mother--she has the same spunk, the same warmth, the same earnest interest in what's going on around her. When health issues started to come between Musa and me, Jeanne stepped in and I trusted her to do so. 

But now we find ourselves here, heartsick and sad, when the days have dimmed unaccountably and even the sounds of an Ohio spring seem to be muted. Our world of writers and readers has lost a beautiful person, one whose talent made so many people happy and whose personality and loving nature was evident in every message or interaction. But beyond that community of authors, Sharon's loss resonates on a deeper, more personal level. We have lost a member of our family, a selfless lodestone to set our course by. We have lost an advocate, who fought zealously for other writers throughout her career. We have lost an innovator, who was willing to take a chance and make the best of it. 

And I have lost a dear, dear friend. Sharon encouraged me as both an editor and a writer. She cared about what was happening in my life, and she made my life brighter once our paths intersected. Her passing was sudden and wholly unexpected, coming as it did without warning.

Sharon leaves behind her husband, Frank, her two daughters, Jeanne and Annie, and two lovely little granddaughters. She also leaves behind legions of devoted fans, bereft authors, and shattered friends. But Sharon has also left us her books--all those wonderful books, the stories that remain as her legacy--that will always remain, immortalized, like she is now. My grief is for my own sake, because I've lost someone important and dear to me, and for her family, whose pain is just so intense right now. And yet, this particular death has brought to mind something that Leonardo da Vinci once said: "As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death."

Life well used. An apt turn of phrase, and one that so embodies Sharon De Vita and the legacy of love and laughter she has bequeathed to us all. Her life was well used.

God speed you, my friend. You will be--and already are--sorely, painfully, sorrowfully missed. 

(And when I get there, wherever there is, we'll continue that argument about commas that I will, as usual, win. Or perhaps I'll let you win it, and just rejoice in the moment that we'll share.)


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

It's Official! Asphodel Returns!

I've been toying with this decision for a while. 

When my partners and I founded Musa, my writing took a back seat. Hard to be a full time writer and a full time editor at the same time. But now that I'm done with the editorial side of the desk, writing is once again my full time gig. So even as I write my new novel, in the back of my mind the thought of Asphodel kept slapping me. 

After all, the series did quite well considering that it was released only as an ebook by a small publisher better known for erotica and romance. So why not give it another shot? 

And, of course, there were the OTHER books I'd written in the Asphodel world because the story just would NOT SHUT UP. In fact, I had a whole new series written after the original four books. Same characters, different story. So while I was debating the fate of Asphodel, that other bit of information was jabbing me in the skull. Repeatedly. So I had to factor that in as well. 

Did I want to go through all the effort of getting those additional books, at present unedited, ready for publication at a standard that I, personally, would require? 

Hell, yes I did. 

So, get ready! Asphodel returns with the re-issue of the four original titles in The Asphodel Cycle: The Reckoning of Asphodel, The Gift of Redemption, The Temptation of Asphodel, and The Apostle of Asphodel over the course of this summer, 2015. In the fall of 2015, the first book of the new series, The Asphodel Saga: Servant of Dis will be published. 

And that's all she wrote. 

For now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ignorance is Anything but Bliss

Maybe it's me. Maybe my tolerance level is just much lower than usual. Maybe I'm just encountering more...less than intellectually scintillating people than normal as of late. 

I don't think it's me. 

Hard as it may be to grasp, but I think ignorance is on the upswing, and I think that's showing up on every level from personal to professional to global. I'm not saying this because I think I'm some kind of Mensa-qualified intellectual giant. I'm basing this statement entirely on events--some that I have witnessed and some we all have. Today has just been a benchmark day and really drove the situation home for me. 

Let me give you some examples. 

I'm one of those people who can upon occasion type faster than I  think. Not a slow thinker, just a very fast typist. People like me, with the gift/curse of 100 wpm, are the most likely to get involved in online spats. Surprising, actually, how insulting 140 characters or less can be under the right set of fingertips. That particular skill also can make you into a polarizing person. But I'm a writer. I *know* better than to get into flame wars. But sometimes they're just unavoidable. For example, if you want to get me really pissed off, insult my kids. Some *original phrase deleted* older gentleman whose previous attempts at insulting me consisted of "DUMB WOMAN" (that's a quote) saw a picture of me and my youngest daughter and posted on Twitter *spelling uncorrected* "Is she your lesban lovr? thats sick". 

She was 16 in the photo. Did not go over well. Why would he say that, you ask? Well, because I am a woman who loves sports, can discuss football knowledgeably, and calls up the same talk show he does to make actual points. So I called him homophobic and HE blocked ME for it! Reminded me of the time when I called out a blatant racist online, and his response was "I'm not a racist. And you spelled biggot (sp) wrong. It has two g's, like N*****R."

*headdesk*

Yeah. Makes my head hurt still. Because I call the Paul Finebaum show, some butthead in Alabama throws out a homophobic slur at me--involving my own kid. 

Today I discovered that all Marines are trained killers. That's all. Just trained killers. Apparently, that is the only thing that defines the Marine Corps. Semper fi, indeed. And I am not capable of debating that because I am just a mother who never served (never mind the long military history of my family) and that I'm unintelligent because I write paranormal stuff (I don't write paranormal stuff) and weirdos like me probably think UFOs landed at Area 51. Always good to know. Did I mention that this particular *original phrase deleted* gentleman who made these statements self-identifies as a Marine?

Yeah. Take a couple of deep breaths. It might help. A Marine told me that all Marines are nothing but trained killers and that I, an American citizen, cannot refute that point because I am a mother and not a Marine. 

Nope. Breaths won't help. Shots might.

It's not just strangers online. A member of my husband's family told me once that the movie Gladiator was historically inaccurate. (Had to explain the concept of fiction to him) A neighbor whose tree fell on our house during a storm tried to claim that he shouldn't have to pay for damage or even remove the tree because it wasn't his fault our house was in the way and was, in fact, our fault because if we hadn't moved the car into the garage it would have broken the tree's fall and prevented the damage to the windows and doors on the front of the house. (Had to go through rudimentary gravity, wind velocity, and basic physics to him) And then there was the doctor who, before he ever examined me or looked at an x-ray of my injured spine, said, "Now if I had a magic pen that I could wave to make everything go away, things might be different. But you aren't hurt--you just want narcotics." even though in the x-ray I'd brought with me there was a blatantly obvious deformity (including a fracture) of my spine.

Don't get me wrong. We ALL say stupid stuff. I am guilty of the compound crime of hot temper/foot in mouth disease myself. And that typing faster than I think thing gets me into trouble if I hit send before I hit the brakes sometimes. Who hasn't sent something out into the world that they really wish wasn't lodged in the permanent memory card of the Internet?

Two word: sex tape. 

But outside of the microcosm of my little, unimportant world is the macrocosm of the world we share--and that's where ignorance snowballs into something ugly and dangerous. These petty examples of ignorance are symptoms, clues that lead us to the terrible realization that we're dealing with a national disease.

Right now in Baltimore, the National Guard has been mobilized to stop the ongoing and escalating violence--where ignorance, or maybe entitlement might be a better phrase--hones that ugly edge. For who in the world would think that protesting an obvious and tragic wrong justifies the type of behavior that's happening now? Do not mistake me here. I believe there is a viable and justifiable reason for communities in Baltimore to be outraged. But community outrage should never take the form or rampaging and random violence. Protest, yes. Loot the mall? Burn down businesses and homes? Torch cars? Get broadcast live nationally breaking into a liquor store and stealing the contents while claiming your actions are the responsibility of the authorities? Pretend that criminal behavior is a form of protest? Destroy the community you claim to be wanting to protect? 

What kind of protest involves stealing flat screen TVs and cell phones? Can you imagine what the great reformers of the American people would think of this? Can you imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or David Thoreau's reactions to what is happening right now?

Tonight while Baltimore burns, the real outrage has to be that ignorance has eclipsed what should have happened today. Instead of using protest to initiate a real and necessary dialogue between the community and the authorities regarding the death of Freddie Gray, the relationship between the police and the citizens, and the alarming deterioration of race relations nationwide, the ignorance of people wholly uninvolved in the situation has led to a city overwhelmed by criminals and now about to be locked down by our own military. A tragedy has become a travesty, and the real issues are buried under a quagmire of horror. 

 The people who could affect any real, positive change in Baltimore are either holed up in their homes, or trying desperately to stop the rampage, like the courageous Nation of Islam folks who lined up and formed a non-violent human fence between rioters and police. Their voices will be drowned under the yells of the ignorant who are throwing bricks through windows or setting houses on fire, fueled no doubt by the booze they looted. 

And when, in future days, when the desperately needed dialogue begins, where will those rioters be? Not talking. Not trying to help. And for the most part, not being held responsible for their criminal behavior either. And they certainly will not be trying to find the right way to protest the tragedy that led to today's violence. 

My use of the word 'ignorance' was very deliberate. I realize that some might take that word the wrong way, particularly if they are determined to do so. Cultural ignorance has been claimed before. My French mother, whose Resistance-organizer father was shot dead in front of her as the Nazis fled from the Allied invasion, never forgave Germans--ANY German--for World War II. Any claim of 'but we didn't know' just enraged her. "How could you not know?" she sneered once at a dinner party, while all the rest of us squirmed. (Yes, I come by my temper naturally. I'm mild compared to her) "I was eight years old and living in France, and I knew that all you Nazis were burning Jews. You lived right there. You knew. You just didn't say it out loud. You didn't WANT to know." She was convinced that the German people were willfully and retroactively ignorant, and right or wrong nothing I or anyone else could say would change her mind. For a long time, I thought she was wrong. 

But lately I've started to wonder if such a thing as cultural ignorance was possible.  After Ferguson, I became convinced that it was not only possible, but epidemic. Just like a parent who turns away from their kid who pulls wings off birds and tortures dogs, we get shocked when our darling offspring turns into a serial killer. That's why on this spring day in Baltimore, I think we all see how dangerous ignorance can be if it goes on unchecked. 

The United States can no longer afford cultural, racial, or social ignorance. Ignorance is bankrupting us as a nation, as a people. Our country began with a dream of enlightenment, and sometimes, on days like today, it doesn't seem like we've met our promise. We, as individuals, have to accept our responsibility for contributing to a culture where the delusion is perpetuated that if we ignore a problem it'll somehow just go away. And just like we have to deal with the consequences if we hit send before we really think about what we're doing online, we are paying a heavy price now for all the looking the other way we did over the last few decades. 

If we had learned the lessons set by Watts or Kent State, we would not now be living through Ferguson and Baltimore. 

And we cannot address the ignorance of our society until we can acknowledge our own ignorance--and take personal responsibility for our actions that ensued. 

Bigot really only has one g. So does ignorance. Or ego. 

And guilt.