Fight Club-1

Fight Club

November 2, 2012 | by Richard Rothschild

At home they didn’t have a dedicated place to practice. Away, they weren’t provided with a per diem for food. Or lodging. They weren’t given sweatshirts, much less uniforms, and what they did wear couldn’t sport a Block M—that was for the men. As Title IX celebrates its 40-year anniversary, we look back at the battles fought by U-M's game-changing female athletes, who helped alter the course of sports both on campus and off.

One wonders what Dr. Margaret Bell would have thought.

Bell, the longtime (1923–1957) director of the Department of Physical Education for Women at U-M, strongly believed competitive athletics, other than intramurals, was no place for a female.

“I think a girl should be a girl,” Bell said. “The social position of women does not stand this exploitation [in varsity sports] and competition. Participation in varsity athletics could disrupt the functioning of the female reproductive system.”

Bell’s observations represent a bygone age as female athletes from Michigan have triumphed in both the collegiate and Olympic arenas.

“Women’s sports were a sleeping giant, and the sleeping giant woke up,” says U-M softball coach Carol Hutchins, who took over the team in 1985 and has led the Wolverines to 15 Big Ten regular season titles and the 2005 national championship. “Michigan is now a great place to be a female student-athlete.”

After an embarrassingly slow start, the University has reached a level of compliance with landmark Title IX legislation that impressed 1972 Olympic springboard diving champion Micki King (’66) enough to say, “I couldn’t be more proud to be a graduate of Michigan.”

King may be the most accomplished female Michigan student-athlete never to have competed for the University during her years at Ann Arbor. There were no varsity sports for Michigan women in the 1960s, nor could they join the marching band or become cheerleaders. King perfected her craft at the Ann Arbor Swim Club and by training with Wolverines men’s diving coach Dick Kimball.

Kimball recognized King’s talent when he saw her working out at Michigan’s women’s pool, where the springboard was only one meter high instead of the regulation three meters.

“Coach said, ‘This is for the birds; I want you training in the men’s pool,’’’ King recalls. “I was told there was only one rule: I would not date any male swimmers—ever. But I was the social contact for setting people up, and some of them are still married.”

King became a national Amateur Athletic Union champion, qualified for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and barely missed a medal when she broke her arm on her next-to-last dive and fell to fourth place.

Kimball, however, encouraged King to take another shot at the ’72 Games in Munich. The combination of his coaching and the start of her 26-year career in the Air Force provided the background for a gold-medal run for King, who eventually attained the rank of colonel.

“I should split my gold medal in half, half to Dick Kimball and half to the Air Force,” King says. “Kimball was asked what it was like ‘to coach a girl,’ and he said, ‘I don’t coach girls, I don’t coach boys. I coach people.’’’

When Away Games Were Better

Although King never represented U-M in collegiate competition, Sheryl Szady (’74, M.A. ’75) did, in field hockey, volleyball, and basketball between 1970 and 1974. Those were years of change and challenge, particularly when most other Michigan colleges and universities had formed varsities for women and U-M was still in the club stage.

“We were on our own,” says Szady, who would later become manager of marketing and research data for U-M’s Office of Development. “We were putting signs up around campus for field hockey meetings. Someone had to take the reins to be the manager and call other schools. After freshman year I took over that. I was a student talking to varsity coaches at other schools.”

A part-time volunteer coach and limited practice hours came with the territory. So did providing food and beverages for the matches. Szady remembers having six cases of soft drinks stacked in her dorm room.

There was minimal coverage of women’s sports in the Michigan Daily and none in the Detroit-area media. The teams often preferred away games where locker rooms actually provided towels.

“[At Michigan] there was a very small locker room with two toilets, one that never worked,” Szady says. “There were showers that you would never set foot in.

“There was always the question of who could get access to a car [for away games]. Those cars could carry six, maybe eight people. You were expected to give the driver a dollar or two for gas. But we had a lot of fun. Women students left to their own means probably did some things that wouldn’t be sanctioned by a coach.”

But a crisis was developing. The other state schools had decided that their varsities would no longer play Michigan women’s club teams. U-M needed to form its own varsities.

Szady, after talking with Michigan athletic officials and administrators, made a simple plea to a meeting of University regents in April 1973: “Could you help us?”

“We told our story, how no one would play us and we needed to move to a different model,” Szady says.

The 1973 women's varsity field hockey team. Back row, left to right: Nathlie (Rennell) Strefling, Gail (Washburn) Jackson, Shellee Almquist, Gray Gilfillan, Cathy Nachman, Sheryl Szady, Sylia (Lang) Aretakis. Front row: Ellen Swagman Bruisma, Deb Lewis, Liz Eagan, Mary Forrestal (Borden).

Despite resistance, particularly from athletic director Don Canham (’41, M.A. ’48), who feared women’s sports would sap resources from the already financially strapped men’s programs, female varsity athletics came to Michigan. Six sports were formed for 1973–1974: tennis, basketball, swimming, field hockey, volleyball, and synchronized swimming (since discontinued). Softball and track joined the roster later in the ’70s.

“We were very appreciative,” Szady says. “It was a step up but not a big step up. Nobody on our team came to Michigan to play field hockey. You fit the sport into your academic schedule. We only practiced an hour or 90 minutes a few times a week. The coach had the equipment in her car. There were no shoes, no socks, no Gatorade or water. When it came to scheduling facilities and practice times, we were at the bottom of the totem pole.

“There was no help with admissions, no help with academic schedules, no tutoring, no scholarships.”

Inching Toward One Block M for All

The year Micki King struck gold in Munich was the same year Title IX became federal law, outlawing racial and gender discrimination in “any education program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.” This included athletics.

But change came slowly in Ann Arbor, be it with facilities, practice fields, or recognition in the media.

Hutchins, a former Michigan State basketball and softball player, said U-M was practically the last school in Michigan “to come aboard” with Title IX.

“When I came here many of the other [college] programs were way ahead of us,” Hutchins said. “A receptionist said ‘We don’t have softball.’ She didn’t know we’d started a team.

“When I became coach it was 50 percent athletics, 50 percent clerical. Men who coached were 100 percent athletics, but I was answering phones from 8:00 A.M. to noon for one of the professors. I was a secretary and a damn bad one. I know the baseball coach didn’t do that. The football coach certainly didn’t do that.”

There also was the matter of the Block M letter that was awarded to all varsity athletes. Legendary football coach Bo Schembechler and basketball coach Johnny Orr signed a letter stating that “softball players and synchronized swimmers should not receive the same Block M that [football and basketball athletes] have sweated and bled for.”

The irony was Michigan had no softball team in the early ’70s and the synchronized swim team was among the best in the nation. Michigan women were told they could have a blue M, a script M,  “anything but the men’s Block M,” Szady says.

The night before a final decision on awards, U-M women received a huge assist from an unexpected source: WDIV-TV sports anchor Al Ackerman, who later created the phrase “Bless you, boys” for the 1984 world champion Detroit Tigers.

“Ackerman went on TV and said if Michigan doesn’t give women the same Block M as the men, ‘I will never mention another Michigan score on this broadcast,’” Szady says. “This tipped the fans that something was going on.”

Canham tried once more to persuade Szady to accept a different award, but, in the end, all but one member of the athletic council voted to give U-M women the Block M. Szady’s photo appeared on the front page of the Ann Arbor News—alongside a shot of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

“Al Ackerman certainly helped us,” Szady says. “But when we got our letter jackets our M’s were smaller and more orange. We were told the manufacturer couldn’t fit the regular Block M on our jackets because our sizes were smaller.”

Equal Opportunity to Win

Hutchins, who was part of the Michigan State women’s basketball team that filed a class action lawsuit against that university over unequal treatment for female athletes, said attitudes at Michigan began to change when Schembechler took over as athletic director in 1988.

Despite his earlier resistance to women wearing the Block M, “Bo wanted Michigan to win in all sports,” she says. “He watched one of our softball practices and wondered why we had only one jersey and one sweatshirt. We had new practice uniforms within a week.”

When Michigan became the first team east of the Mississippi to win an NCAA softball title in 2005, Schembechler placed a congratulatory phone call to Hutchins.

“Bo wasn’t about men or women,” Hutchins says. “He was about Michigan.”

Alumna Jennifer Brundage, number two, slides into base, playing for the U.S. women's softball team during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The U.S. women's team won gold.

Szady says that under Schembechler, there was more “standardization” for men’s and women’s athletics. If the men were being bused to Columbus or Indiana, so were the women. If the men were being flown to Minneapolis, so were the women.

She praised Schembechler’s successor, Jack Weidenbach, for being an even bigger supporter of women’s sports. Even the retired Canham began bringing his granddaughter to women’s gymnastics events at U-M.

Michigan women went on to win an NCAA field hockey championship (2001) and placed second in swimming (1995), gymnastics (1999), and crew (2001). Swimmer Samantha Arsenault (U-M 2001–2002) and softballer Jennifer Brundage (M.A. ’05) have won Olympic gold medals, following in the footsteps of King and swimmers Joan Spillane (U-M 1960–1962) and Ginny Duenkel (’69), who won Olympic crowns in the pre-Title IX era, in 1960 and 1964, respectively.

“[Michigan] women now have the resources with facilities, totally funded scholarships, and academic support,” Hutchins says. “Men and women are treated the same; we’re all given the opportunity to win. I can’t say that was true when I got here.”

No, Margaret Bell never envisioned Michigan fielding 14 varsity sports for women or U-M female athletes appearing on national television or playing before packed houses in state-of-the-art athletic facilities. But neither did Carol Hutchins.

“I could never have envisioned playing on ESPN or in filled stadiums,” Hutchins says. “It’s hard to imagine universities would ever treat us like boys. I have older women telling me, ‘I never had this opportunity when we were young.’

“But it is an opportunity that should not be taken for granted. There are still battles to be fought with equal pay and equal opportunities. But today’s female student-athletes are the winners.”

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