Letter of the Law: How University of Michigan Women Got Their Varsity Jackets (a Few Decades Late)

In the mid-70s, when Michigan established varsity women’s teams, the men then in charge of athletics pitched a fit over the idea that women should earn the same awards as male athletes. Sheryl Szady, for one, refused to accept the slight.

by Alisa Solomon
Sep 22 2016, 1:30pm

Courtesy Alisa Solomon

The package arrived toward the end of July, containing a weighty blue woolen garment: the jacket I'd earned in the fall of 1974, playing varsity field hockey at the University of Michigan. Its cool and creamy leather sleeves gave the box the faint aroma of a new car, and when I eagerly put it on—despite the 92-degree heat—I felt my middle-aged heart pound with pride beneath its big yellow block 'M.' As the ecstatic postings on a two-month-old Facebook group page for Michigan Early Women Letter Winners suggest, the hundreds of alumnae who received varsity jackets this summer, decades after meriting them, felt such hammerings in their own chests.

It was precisely those sleeves and that 'M' that had delayed delivery long beyond the days when I'd last whacked a ball downfield or needed my shins taped up. In the mid-70s, when Michigan established varsity women's teams, the men then in charge of athletics pitched a fit over the idea that women should earn the same awards as male athletes. The storied football coach, Bo Schembechler, whined that women wearing the leather-sleeved blue letter jackets would "minimize the value of the 'M' in the eyes of not only our players but the public who place such a high value on it."

As the university's Board in Control of Athletics prepared to vote on the question, UM's athletic director, Don Canham—who pioneered the marketing of football games as spectacular, festive events, hugely increasing ticket sales—wrote to some M Club alumni to rouse their opposition. He told them, "The block M has stood for excellence in men's athletics since the turn of the century, and I think to dilute it by giving it to synchronized swimming for women or softball for women would be a tragedy." Never mind that UM had no varsity softball team in 1975, when Canham sounded that alarm. The mere specter of such a supposedly sullying sport was threat enough.

Read More: Are Major College Sports Programs Treating Title IX Like A Suggestion?

"Minimize." "Dilute." "Tragedy." It didn't matter that we ran the bleachers of the 101,000-seat stadium at practice, drilled stick skills and passing plays until sundown, dashed through wind-sprints until our legs wobbled and lungs gave out. To the men at the helm, our female bodies were weak, contaminating, unworthy of displaying their precious badge of achievement and grit. Or worse: we represented a challenge to the masculinity they imagined the 'M' stood for.

Sheryl Szady, for one, refused to accept the slight. A pioneering student-athlete, Szady entered UM in the fall of 1970, fresh from multi-sport high school years at Grosse Pointe North, and began fighting for women's athletics before her first academic assignment was due. Back then, women competed on club teams, which they organized themselves; institutional support amounted to little more, Szady says, than a dozen rolls of white athletic tape.

The women wanted—and knew they deserved—more. They were watching the teams they competed against grow in stature and strength as other schools established varsity programs for women. Szady and fellow student-athlete Linda Laird—managers, respectively, of the field hockey and basketball squads—lobbied for a similar upgrade. Canham planted himself as a one-man defensive wall, impossible to get around. According to several doctoral dissertations that discuss the history of women's athletics at UM (including one by Szady, completed in 1987), Canham didn't think the women on club teams displayed high enough skill levels for varsity. And he objected to having to fund them out of his budget.

But the women could go above him. In 1973, they had little choice if they wanted to field teams at all. That spring, as Szady and Laird made the round of calls to set up matches for the following academic year, one school after another turned them down. Those colleges would no longer compete against schools that did not meet the emerging standards of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (the counterpart to the NCAA, which at the time still governed men's sports only) like employing paid coaches and requiring participants to pass physical exams. Szady and Laird took their case to UM's Board of Regents. Szady remembers leaning over the long, wooden table in the boardroom, and stating plainly, "We want to play. Can you help us?"

The women's basketball team in 1971. Courtesy Sheryl Szady

No one mentioned Title IX, but the legislation, which had passed the previous year and outlawed gender discrimination at schools receiving federal funds, hovered over the proceedings; guidelines for its implementation hadn't been issued, but officials understood that UM, which had yet to respond to the new law, would have to quicken its pace to comply. Indeed, that August, Marcia Federbush, an activist with NOW, led the country's first Title IX lawsuit against a university—UM—charging that in the 1971-72 academic year, the athletic budget for men was $2,611,196, while for women it was $0.

Yes, the university set up committees and generated reports—university bureaucracy demanded as much—but they acted fast. (Szady and Laird served as student representatives.) Within a month, the 1973-74 season kicked off with six women's varsity teams. Then, in the spring of 1974, the university formally added the administrative position of Associate Director for Women's Athletics (at first, as a half-time appointment and, in Canham's view, at too high a rank. Though she officially reported to Canham, he enjoined her, she once told a researcher, to deal with his assistant and "stay out of the way.")

"Don't go there, Sheryl," a committee member told Szady when she raised the next logical step: varsity awards for women. "Don't poke the bear again." Or the wolverine. Szady poked. And poked and poked. She landed on the Board in Control's subcommittee the following fall that, under NCAA instructions, was making a general review of awards, and that included the jackets.

While some male board members and alumni supported the women's right to wear the 'M', it wasn't just Canham and Schembechler who inveighed against them. Long before the internet, trolls had snailmail; Szady received dozens of letters and postcards, each nastier than the last. One displayed a crude drawing of a bra with the cleavage forming the shape of an 'M'—the only 'M' women deserve, the caption mocked.

The night before the Board was slated to vote, the legendary Detroit sportscaster Al Ackerman, likely apprised of the controversy by men seeking to recruit him for the opposition, told TV viewers that until UM did right by its female athletes, he would not report its football scores. The next day, Canham rushed Szady in for a pre-meeting confab and tried to bargain her into settling for something less than the block 'M'. "I should have said I want four seats on the 50 for life," she says now with a laugh. But she held firm. "I'll take my chances with the Board's vote," she told him.

The following morning, on June 11, 1975, a large, two-column photo of Szady graced the cover of the Ann Arbor News under the headline, "Michigan Women Will Get That 'M'." The story reported on the battle resulting in a 14–1 majority favoring jacket equity. In four seasons playing field hockey and basketball, Szady had never scored such a momentous victory.

The triumphant headline. Courtesy Sheryl Szady

By the time jackets were distributed the following academic year—with athletes from UM's first varsity seasons being awarded retroactively—Szady had graduated and was teaching in northwestern Michigan. When the jacket arrived in the mail, she remembers eagerly pulling it out of the box and doing a double take. "What the hell is this?" she said aloud to herself. This jacket had cloth sleeves instead of leather ones and, much worse, a squat, scrunched 'M' that was more Dorito orange than Michigan maize.

The men had lost the vote, but reduced the 'M' for women all the same. Tennis player Marissa Pollick, one of the first women to receive an athletic scholarship at UM in 1976 (I got one then, too), had followed the campaign for fair treatment closely; "believing it to be successful," she, too, was stunned when presented with her jacket. "I couldn't believe it," she remembers. "It was fake, an imitation."

She marched right to the athletic department, where the top brass refused to see her; she was sent to a woman administrator, who offered a wan explanation for the scrunched-up 'M': "You girls are smaller; your letter is smaller." So, countered Pollick, "Did the male gymnasts get smaller 'M's than the football players?" Pollick never once put on that jacket. She regarded it as a "dismissive insult."

I did wear mine. As I preened around campus in my blue-and-not-quite-gold, people stopped me and asked if I had a boyfriend on the football team. Right. One who could squash into a jacket that fit a 5'2" bantamweight.

The UM field hockey team circa 1976-77. The writer is kneeling, second from the left. Courtesy Alisa Solomon

Over the years, Pollick, as an attorney and legal consultant on Title IX compliance for collegiate sports, has confronted such grievances through litigation, monitoring legal obligations, and addressing "the really systematic history of discrimination going back generations." Meanwhile, Szady kept fighting for the jackets. (Never bitter, Szady returned to UM for her MA and PhD, and worked for 27 years, until her recent retirement, in the university's development office; she signs her emails "Go Blue!")

Through the 1980s, as women's sports grew, became part of the NCAA, and joined the Big Ten conference, Szady continued to raise the issue, but nothing shook. Then, in the early 1990s, after Canham retired and Schembechler left, Michigan athletics was reorganized. The position of women's athletic director opened up and the volleyball coach, Peg Bradley-Doppes (now Vice Chancellor for Athletics at the University of Denver), was invited to move into it. She stipulated one condition: that men's and women's athletics merge into a single unit, where all would be treated equally. There would no longer be a director of women's athletics at all, just directors for athletes of both genders. Bradley-Doppes remembers insisting, "If we were going to be one department, we had to be sure the look and feel was the exactly the same." And that included the "iconic block 'M'." Without any fuss or fustian, in 1992, varsity women started receiving the proper jackets.

The early women's varsity jacket (left) and the real deal. Courtesy Alisa Solomon

But what about the nearly two decades' worth of athletes who had come before them? Szady kept pressing. "No matter who came in, it didn't matter," she says. "The culture stayed the same." Until, of course, history changed it.

By 2012, once-maligned softball had become an inspiring model for men. Hired that year as the men's baseball coach, Erik Bakich told the media, "We've got to catch Hutch," referring to softball coach Carol "Hutch" Hutchins, the winningest coach, male or female, in Michigan athletics history. "The softball program gives me tremendous optimism of what baseball can do here, and not just do it once in a while, but do it on a consistent level," Bakich said.

Last year, Szady found a sympathetic ear in interim athletic director Jim Hackett and she started to compile a list of early women athletes. When Warde Manuel stepped in as athletic director in early 2016—coming from the position at UConn, where no sentient being could possibly imagine female athletes as anything less than paragons—Szady introduced herself. Before she could get through a sentence of her long-practiced spiel, she says, Manuel cut her off. "We're gonna do it," he told her.

In April, he sent an email to all the women who lettered between fall 1973 and spring 1991—all 896 of us Szady could find, anyway—announcing, "the athletic department is thrilled to offer you a new varsity jacket" and inviting us to place an order. UM would bear all the costs. About 800 responded (running up a cost of about $50,000). In July, Manuel showed up where Szady was playing golf, "to make sure he was the first to help me into my jacket," she exulted on Facebook, under a photo of the two of them beaming. Jackets shipped out to all corners of the country, accompanied by a gracious note from current track and cross-country star Erin Finn. "For the years when you had different jackets," she wrote, "I would like to repay you with words of gratitude, and to sincerely let you know that your time here yesterday is changing my tomorrow."

Szady and her hard-earned varsity jacket. Courtesy Sheryl Szady

Nearly 300 women joined the group page Szady set up, posting pics of themselves newly decked out. Some hold tennis rackets or hockey sticks or volleyballs or pose by a swimming pool or on a balance beam. Many have gray hair. Tags still dangle from a lot of their sleeves, as if the women couldn't wait to try them on. "I always hated that other jacket and refused to wear it! [smiley emoticon]" gushes Julie Clarkson (softball, 1989-92). Leslie Spicer Williams (basketball, 1986-90) stands with a basketball in one hand and, in the other, a vintage poster of her and three teammates who played four years together. She hadn't been much aware of the controversy over the jackets while in college, she told me, but she certainly witnessed how her team had to schedule practices around the times men wanted the gym and how the women couldn't scrimmage in Crisler Arena. The new jacket now serves as an emblem not only of her own achievements (Big Ten honorable mention among them) but also of "all the people who paved the way for the people who came behind them."

Symbols matter, after all: the male opponents were right at least about that. For me, that old compressed 'M,' about the hue of Donald Trump's hair, stands for the lack of women's locker rooms in the shiny indoor track and tennis complex that opened at UM in 1974; the cars that parked on our hockey pitch on football Saturdays, leaving tire tracks for us to trip in; the money the first teams had to shell out to buy their own uniforms; the swim team's practices from 3:00 to 5:00 AM, when the men didn't have dibs on the pool; UM's relentless hostility to Title IX through the 1970s and 80s; and a thousand other obstacles and indignities that added up to second-class status. A lot has changed in 40 years and it's important to remember how far we've come. That's why my old jacket still hangs in my closet.

But when the fall weather turns, I'll be wearing the new one.

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