Correction: A previous version of this column said Gerald Ford signed Title IX into law and


Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt waves as she leaves the court after Tennessee defeated DePaul 63-48 in a 2012 NCAA tournament second-round game. (Nam Y. Huh/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Down in Tennessee, they are about to remove the word “Lady” from the Tennessee Volunteers logo, which is like chiseling the face off a priceless work of art. If someone started whacking the arms off statues at the Acropolis in order to sell them, you would call the perpetrator a destructive vulgarian with no appreciation of history.

Phil Knight, that’s you.

At the behest of Nike and Tennessee’s athletic department, the “Lady Vols” are being eliminated in place of the resoundingly male “Power T” for every team except women’s basketball, for commercial reasons. The exception is being made out of respect for coach emeritus Pat Summitt, who long opposed this ridiculous move because, as one of the great promoters in sports history, she understands what a mistake it is to confuse “branding” with some lame idea of sameness.

If I’m Knight or any other marketing executive at Nike, I’m beginning to worry that I’ve made a mistake in defacing the women’s sports tradition at Tennessee. And I’m wondering how such a word could be the cause of so much grief and protest. In the two days since Tennessee announced the policy, more than 3,000 people have signed a Change.org petition against it. A whopping 77 percent of respondents to an ESPN SportsNation poll also have voted against it. Knoxville columnist John Adams observed that Athletic Director Dave Hart has provoked so much rage, fans want to run him down with a car. The reason is that, to these legions, “Lady” doesn’t connote inferiority but rather its precise opposite.

First of all, the idea that “Lady” is an anachronism or even a slur is too thoughtless to let stand. It’s a term of civility and respect, the natural counterpart to gentleman; it connotes someone who commands courtesy and extends it in return. Among other uses, it describes the partner of the leader of the country, the First Lady. In the case of the Tennessee Lady Vols, it’s a self-selected term that represents a history of hard-won greatness, the seizure of athletic power and identity for women via Title IX, led by Summitt and an all-female athletic department in the 1970s.

They chose the name for themselves in a meeting in a basement in 1976. Up to that point, Tennessee had seven women’s sports housed in a small, stifling, fifth-floor walk-up attic office. Summitt did the scheduling, travel plans, ordering and rules compliance for all of them, along with teaching four courses — on an annual salary of $8,900. Richard Nixon had signed Title IX into law, but most schools were thinking about how to duck it. To give you an idea of the tenor of the times, when the University of Texas shelled out $17,000 to hire a basketball coach named Jody Conradt, it shocked a local paper into the headline, “Woman Hired At Man’s Salary.”

At Tennessee, Summitt and a handful of women persuaded then-president Ed Boling to make a genuine commitment to the law, creating a women’s athletic department that was allowed to move into the basement of Stokely Athletics Center. Which was where they convened a meeting to decide on their team logos.

Until then, women’s teams at Tennessee had been the Volettes, but Summitt hated it. It reminded her of a line of chorus girls. She hated anything, in fact, that made her athletes sound girly-girl. “Babies, sissies,” she would sneer. “Nice girls.” She thought they needed a new brand and a break from the dingy, underfunded, sexist past.

“What do you want to be?” she asked them. “Do you want to be just Volunteers, like the guys?”

There wasn’t much enthusiasm for that, so she said, “What about the Lady Volunteers?”

“Lady sounds classy,” someone said.

“Yeah,” said Lisa McGill, Summitt’s first scholarship player. “’Cause we’re so good-lookin’.”

What happened from there was the building of a sports juggernaut that Summitt was just the spearhead of. At the 2012 Summer Games in London, eight athletes from the University of Tennessee won medals. Seven of them were Lady Vols. Lady Vol meant softball champ Monica Abbott’s mighty blur of a pitch, a record 77 mph, and American sprinters dangling gold medals. It meant Candace Parker’s arching dunk, and Kara Lawson sitting at an television anchor desk. And of course it meant Summitt’s eight national championships and 1,098 victories, the career record for any gender.

Tennessee taught a brand of “womanhood,” as Tamika Catchings puts it. Above all it taught the power of self-definition. “You don’t ever let someone else tell you who you are,” Summitt thundered.

It meant being unashamedly competitive. Two-time Olympic track gold medalist DeeDee Trotter was a Lady Vol. Five-time track Olympian Joetta Clark Diggs was a Lady Vol, and so were gold medalists Tianna Bartoletta and Benita Fitzgerald-Brown. Olympic swimming silver medalist Christine Magnuson was Lady Vol, as was soccer Olympian Rhian Wilkinson.

If a Lady Vol is wearing a diamond on her finger, odds are she won it.

Summitt and her longtime athletic directors Joan Cronan and Gloria Ray built an ethos in their department that spread throughout the stadiums and became the best part of the Tennessee brand. There is a reason the Peyton Mannings and the Ernie Grunfelds admired it: It was pure class.

The wrongheadedness of the current Lady Vol discussion reminds me of something a young woman named Kim Henderson told me once. Henderson, the daughter of NFL vice president Harold Henderson, led the women’s rugby team at Princeton to the national championship in 1995, in the face of all kinds of social opposition. It was just a club sport, and the women had to fund themselves, and they were figures of fun on a campus that didn’t admit women until 1969. But then they made the national semifinals, and upper-crust mothers in fur coats turned up on the sidelines, shouting for them.

They were socialites, sorority girls and art history majors who delighted in showing up at Princeton’s formal balls in long dresses, with black eyes and split lips. That championship season taught all of them something crucial about seizing your own definitions of labels such as femininity and strength.

“I guess it depends on what you mean by femininity,” Henderson said. “Does it mean sitting in a sewing circle with our legs crossed? No, we didn’t do that. To us it meant doing whatever you want and still feeling feminine. It was femininity to the nth degree. It was control of the entire situation.”

At Tennessee, the Lady Vols learned control of the entire situation.

So if I’m Phil Knight, I rethink this. I tell the male administrators at Tennessee, “We are keeping the Lady Vols logo because we love the brand and what it stands for. We not only agree with its values we want them for Nike.”

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.