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Sports

Long shots

How Louise Dixon finally got her letter after 60 years

U-M women's field hockey, 1937.
Chris Seufert, U-M Swimming, 1977-78; 1980 Olympic Team.
Photo by: Doug Coombe
Second-class no more: Female U-M athletes from the "club" days finally get their due.
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Published 9/12/2007

Jane Campbell never walked at graduation. Instead, she swam.

The University of Michigan senior could have turned her tassel with the class of 1974, but competed instead in the only annual synchronized swimming competition of the year. The meet coincided, as luck would have it, with her commencement.

At the time, women athletes at Michigan and many other schools had no varsity teams and competed only through "club sports" like synchronized swimming.

Access to practice facilities was limited to the times when male athletes weren't around, such as weekends, nights and when dining halls were open and the men were eating. The ladies had to finance almost everything on their own dime.

"We didn't even have uniforms," says the now 54-year-old Campbell. "We had to beg the men's coach to borrow the boys' warm-up suits before our competition. And we had to wear our own sweat suits underneath, because they smelled so bad!"

The season for the male swimming team was over but their warm-up suits hadn't yet been cleaned before the synchronized swimming meet, Campbell recalls. Only on the promise that the girls would immediately take them to the dry cleaner were they allowed to use them for the competition.

Because, frankly, that's just how things were then. It was before Title IX, federal legislation enacted in 1972 that helped level the proverbial playing fields in educational and athletic programs. Hundreds of women like Campbell swam, shot, hit, flipped, caught and served on college club teams long before schools supported the dozens of women's sports they do today.

And they competed with no expectations of equity, let alone hope of earning the famed block "M" varsity letter. That didn't come until 1975.

"The highlight of my athletic career was the one basketball game we played at the IM [intramural building]," said Cheryl Barkovich, 58, a student athlete at Michigan who was on the field hockey, basketball and volleyball teams between 1967 and 1971. "We had reached our peak — the IM building!"

Usually, the women's teams practiced and played at the old Waterman gymnasium, which was built in the late 19th century. Once, apparently, a game was canceled because the ceiling sprung too many leaks during a rainstorm. And there was no university-funded transportation. When the girls traveled, they'd take a couple of station wagons. Squeezing about six to a car, Barkovich laughs, it was tragic when someone got carsick.

"You look back on it, and you realize you were treated as second-class citizens," she says. "But when you were going through it, you really didn't feel that way. You were just happy to be here, get a great education, and it was a bonus to be playing for U of M."

The women in maize and blue — like their counterparts at schools throughout the country — had few expectations during most of the 20th century. Forget earning varsity letters, having strength coaches and academic counselors, wearing fancy uniforms and looking for professional scouts in the audience. This group of women now say they were just happy to be playing, going to school and having some competitive fun.

"A lot of us knew we were never going to be professional athletes," said Janet Hooper, 57, who played field hockey, tennis, basketball and volleyball. She says the fact the university didn't provide much support wasn't as important as building character, leadership skills, and understanding that "the game goes on."

"It was the most important for us to be recognized," she says. "And after 37 years, we're recognized."

Hooper was part of a gathering Friday, Sept. 7, of largely silver-haired ladies who nibbled on cocktail shrimp and mingled while the University of Michigan marching band played. "Oooooh, oooh, ooooh. Let's Go Blue!" they cheered. It was meant to be all the pomp and fanfare that generations of women athletes missed.

The "Early Women in Athletics" ceremony at the school's Junge Family Center, adjacent to Michigan Stadium and the Crisler Arena, honored the school's pre-Title IX, pre-varsity letter-earning athletes. Sixty honorees, joined by spouses and children, were finally "lettered" following a presentation about the development of women athletics at the university.

Louise Dixon, a sprightly octogenarian from the class of 1947, was glowing. She held up a framed letter M. "After all these years!" cried the former swimmer and riflery team member. "About time!"

It was an impressive gathering — physicians, lawyers, educators. There was Hooper, a "professional fund-raiser" for philanthropies. There was Campbell, who served as the first female mayor of Cleveland from 2002 to 2006. And there's Barkovich, who continues a career in sports, serving as commissioner of the Office of Interscholastic Athletics in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The women clustered together and posed for pictures on the steps of Michigan Stadium, flanked by the marching band. They stood as a group, made silly faces, whooped.

The club sports these women and others competed in under the auspices of the school's Women's Athletic Association from the late 19th century until the beginning of the 1980s were the precursors to Michigan's current 13 women's varsity sports.

The Ann Arbor school had its first women's sports competition in 1898 — a basketball game between the freshman and sophomore teams. No record exists of who won.

The first intercollegiate competition for University of Michigan women was in 1922, when a riflery match was "telegraphically" held with the University of Illinois. No results of that competition exist either.

Club sports were added throughout the 20th century with the Women's Athletic Association organizing competitions through the 1950s. These were mainly limited to contests between dorms and sororities. By the 1960s, teams were competing against other schools, and by the early 1970s, the demand for varsity status had grown.

In the 1973-1974 academic year, basketball, field hockey, swimming and diving, synchronized swimming, tennis and volleyball became women's varsity sports, but women competed not with the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA like the men, but as part of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, a separate organization.

The change from club to varsity status didn't yield many changes the first season, says Sheryl Szady, who played on both the varsity field hockey and basketball teams in their first years. The main one: required physicals from university health services.

"We still washed our own uniforms. It was our shoes and socks and blouses. It was the university's kilts," says Szady, now the director of marketing and research data for the university's office of development.

The total funding for the women's intercollegiate sports program in its first varsity year was about $80,000, including coaches' salaries, Szady wrote in her dissertation for her doctorate at Michigan in higher education.

The growth of the women's athletic program in the 1970s coincided with the federal adoption and implementation of Title IX. By 1981 there were 11 women's varsity sports on campus, and supporters were advocating leaving the AIAW and changing to the Big Ten and the NCAA.

The change came after the AIAW received a television contract for the championship women's basketball game, Szady says. "That's when the NCAA said, 'We need to squash this.'"

Michigan's board of control approved the school's sports affiliation with the NCAA and the Big Ten in 1981 for women's teams.

Going "too far"

"We have removed many obstacles and greatly increased the ability of women and girls to take advantage of the opportunities previously denied them," Stephanie Monroe, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, wrote in a letter to high school principals in June, the 35th anniversary of Title IX's adoption.

According to Monroe, Title IX "has improved and enhanced athletic opportunities for women and girls by allowing students equal opportunity to participate without discrimination based on sex."

The landmark federal Title IX legislation essentially prohibited sex discrimination at educational institutions that received federal funds — at least in terms of scholarship money, as schools were required to provide an equal number of scholarships to male and female student-athletes. One of the results was massive growth in women's participation in intercollegiate sports during the next few decades as schools added women's teams in order to comply with Title IX.

In 1970, the average number of women's varsity teams on a college campus was about 2.5, according to a study by Brooklyn College professors emeriti Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter. By 1980 there were an average of 6.5 women's teams on a campus, and that number reached 8.45 by 2004. Basketball, volleyball and cross country are the most popular.

A sign of the change the researchers found: In 1968, there were about 16,000 female collegiate athletes. Today there are about 8,400 female collegiate teams.

Yet, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, women remain "significantly" underrepresented in collegiate athletic programs. A national study of 738 NCAA colleges and universities found, on average, women comprised 56 percent of undergraduate enrollment but only 42 percent of student-athletes. Men are just 44 percent of enrollment but nearly 60 percent of student-athletes.

"There are really substantial differences that exist," says James Cheslock, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona's Center for Study of Higher Education who received a research grant from the Women's Sports Foundation to study the participation issue. "I don't know if I have the definitive answer to what is perfect equity."

Title IX does not require colleges and universities to provide perfect equity across their athletic programs: facilities, equipment, travel budgets and other expenditures do not need to be equally funded. "There is something in the legislation that says you're not supposed to be giving out travel dollars and facilities on a discriminatory basis," Cheslock says, "but there are not clear criteria for determining when you're doing that in a discriminatory fashion and when you're not. There's certainly no regulation stating that [money] should be given out in a particular fashion."

When President Ford in 1975 approved the regulations that forced colleges and universities to award scholarships equally between male and female students, opposition came publicly.

"We agree with U of M Coach Bo Schembechler that Title IX will just about kill collegiate sports by diluting important football revenue to pay for women's scholarships," opined WWJ's radio and televisions stations at the time. "Like everything the government does, it's gone too far."

College prep

Before college, there's high school, where Title IX's three decades have dramatically changed the sports landscape.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association, the not-for-profit corporation that organizes sports for public and private high schools, doesn't have records before the 1980s. In 1988-1989, when the association began keeping decent records, about 36 percent of all high school girls, or 84,665 girls, participated in sports for which the association has a championship tournament. The boys' participation rate that year was about 62 percent.

During the 2006-2007 academic year, the MHSAA reports that 131,500 girls participated, about 50 percent of all girls enrolled, compared to 67 percent of boys.

In Michigan, there was only one girls' sport with a statewide tournament during the 1971-1972 academic year when the MHSAA first organized: gymnastics.

"Certainly schools had [other sports] teams on their own," says John Johnson, MHSAA spokesman.

The following year, the association added championships for girls in swimming and diving, tennis, golf, and track and field, followed by basketball, skiing, softball, volleyball and cross country by the end of the decade. Today there are 14 statewide tournament sports for girls, and several other non-tournament sports are also available.

Johnson attributes the growth to schools responding to students' interests. "It's schools doing what they do best: providing opportunities for kids to participate in extracurricular activities and giving kids reasons to like school and want to go to school and want to do well in school," he says. "Schools were able to gauge that interest, measure that interest and start providing opportunities."

Lynn Sandmann, who was a U-M synchronized swimmer in the early 1970s, wishes the revolution had started earlier. She and her high school female classmates in the 1960s had basketball, softball and volleyball clubs, not organized competitions between schools.

"I was a little bit regretful that I couldn't have been born a bit later," she said at the University of Michigan dinner last week. "I think it's awesome what opportunities girls and women have now. But you have to wonder what would have happened if you had those opportunities when you were younger."

One guy's view

After his football career at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, Gary Bryce remained in the sports world. While teaching U.S. history at Royal Oak's Dondero High School, Bryce also coached the football and wrestling teams and umpired college baseball. He played men's fast-pitch softball, so when the three-year-old Dondero girls softball team needed a coach in 1975, he was the guy.

He quickly realized the administration's attitude was different for girls' teams than for boys'.

"The baseball coach was ordering new uniforms. The athletic director said, 'You've got to order from that other catalog over there.' I said, 'Read my lips. I'll take exactly what they have,'" Bryce recalls.

He got his nicer uniforms but other inequities remained. The baseball team used an updated field for practice and games, complete with lights. The softball team didn't have a practice area. Because he was the football coach, he put the girls on the football field for drills. They played games on a nearby field that didn't have any fences surrounding it. A booster club organized and opened a bank account to support the girls' team.

Bryce eventually left Dondero for Wayne State University where he's been the softball coach since 1982. At that time, many schools were making a point to hire women's coaches for women's sports in the post-Title IX atmosphere of increasing women's involvement.

Bryce doesn't think that attitude — which he still sees sometimes — was necessarily positive for the sports world.

"When some women first got into sports because of gender equity, they got jobs they never should have," Bryce says. He feels some programs suffered.

Being a good coach for a women's or men's team is not gender dependent Bryce says.

"If there was a woman that deserved to coach Indiana's men's basketball team, she should get the job. Will that happen? Maybe down the road," Bryce adds.

Meanwhile, Bryce has shepherded improvements in the Wayne State program. A new field funded with private money nearly 20 years ago has been replaced with an updated diamond. The summer pitching and hitting camps he started for local girls are full. Women athletes now can spend more on meals during road trips than the $5 they had 15 years ago when the men had $15.

"Women don't eat as much," an athletic administrator told Bryce when he protested the food allowance. "It doesn't matter," the coach retorted. "You want equality in sports."

Bryce now worries that women in college sports today don't understand — or appreciate — such battles that were fought in the war for better equity in collegiate sports.

"Now it's, 'What are you going to give me today?' There are a lot of people that don't know what it took to get it to this point," he says.

Still, women's sports will always be inherently different than men's at colleges and universities, he believes, because women don't have the expectation or hope of playing professionally beyond school. Sure, he says, there are rare exceptions for national teams, professional leagues like the WNBA and the Olympics, but only a handful of female student-athletes will compete professionally or nationally.

Not too many men will either, Bryce admits, but they will always have that hope and possibility.

"When you're done, you're done in general," Bryce says.

Women realize that better than men, so by their senior years, they're focusing on finding a job or going to graduate school. That means in many cases their freshman and sophomore years are when they're most focused on sports.

Men are the opposite, he says, as they "dream" of future sports success.

"They think they can hit that home run when there's a scout in the stands and they'll get a major league contract," he says.

Dream decisions

Sandra Svoboda (no relation to the Metro Times staff writer) was one of those seniors who knew her basketball career ended with the final buzzer of her final college game. As a center and forward on U-M's first women's varsity basketball team to compete in the Big Ten, she enjoyed what she considered luxuries during her freshman year in Ann Arbor.

"We were the first class that got to fly to games. We thought we were spoiled to come out of high school and be playing in the Big Ten. We never complained about anything we received. We were fortunate in our minds," Svoboda says.

By her senior year, she was considering graduate school options more than how to continue her basketball career.

"We were absolutely focused on academics," she says. "My senior year, there was a women's professional league created and 500 women were invited to try out. I was one of them."

Despite her love for the game, Svoboda, a psychology major, decided against even attempting to have a professional career with an ill-fated predecessor to the WNBA or with women's professional teams in Europe as some of her competitors and teammates did.

With a full scholarship to a master's program in school psychology at Ohio University, Svoboda moved to southeast Ohio and played a little bit in recreational women's leagues. Later she played with men's teams but was always scared of knee injuries and the years of rehabilitation they take.

"Last time I played for fun was with my nephew," she says. "I can shoot around."

As an elementary school principal in Lancaster City Schools outside Columbus, Ohio, Svoboda says she's happy that children as young as kindergartners have competitive sports opportunities in soccer, basketball and baseball. "When I was in school you didn't have anything until seventh grade," she says.

Svoboda is too young to attend last weekend's event in Ann Arbor, which was for women in the pre-varsity era, but says she understands the appreciation the women there had for finally receiving some formal recognition of their collegiate athletic careers.

When Svoboda played at U-M during the mid-1980s, women had a different letter jacket — all blue felt compared to the men's blue felt with yellow leather sleeves.

The letter she earned to sew on it came with much controversy on campus a few years earlier. When the university's board of control revamped the awards system in 1975 to accommodate women's varsity sports, administrators in the athletic department fought to have a different version of the block "M" varsity letter for female student-athletes.

Coach Schembechler voiced his opposition in a letter. "What we face is the possibility of the same football 'M' being earned by the women's synchronized swimming team, for instance. If that comes to pass, it will 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," he wrote.

Still, the board voted to award the same letter to all athletes. But the differences in what garb Michigan athletes could wear would extend another decade. In the 1990s, Svoboda got a letter telling her women could now wear the same jacket as the men — the blue felt with the yellow sleeves.

She bought one.

Meghana Keshavan is listings editor and Sandra Svoboda is a staff writer at Metro Times. Contact Svoboda at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com.

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