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.


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 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.