SportsMonday Column: Women's athletics and the attention we pay

Sunday, January 13, 2019 - 7:49pm

The Michigan women's gymnastics team has long surpassed the men's team in prominence.

The Michigan women's gymnastics team has long surpassed the men's team in prominence. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

I had 345 words of an empowering column about the Michigan women’s gymnastics team written on Saturday morning.

It all started when my roommates and I went to the Michigan Theatre Friday night to see “On the Basis of Sex.” About 20 minutes before the movie started, an older-looking woman and man walked in, with the man wearing a Michigan varsity jacket — so, naturally, I pried.

“Did you play a sport at Michigan?” I asked. 

“About a million years ago,” he chuckled. “Men’s gymnastics.”

Turns out his name is Christian Vanden Broek and he competed from 1965-67 — seasons that, he’ll tell you with a smile, included exhibition meets with international Russian teams that packed Crisler Center. I told him I’d only covered the men’s team once for The Daily but wrote about the women’s team pretty consistently my freshman year. 

He nodded his head. The popularity of the women’s team wasn’t news to him, and he didn’t seem to mind that. 

“Used to be the men would fill up Crisler — now they’re drawing 200 or 300 people at Cliff Keen while the women fill up Crisler.”

As I watched Ruth Bader Ginsburg give a flooring speech to a trio of judges who tried to mansplain the three branches of government to her, memories from The Daily’s Women’s History Month series from last year kept popping up. At that time, so many coaches and athletes were excited to talk about how far the women’s teams at Michigan had progressed, with gymnastics being one of them. 

I wanted to write a feature on that throughout the whole series. The women’s gymnastics team is not one of the best female teams at Michigan — it’s one of the best teams at Michigan, period. After talking to Vanden Broek, I felt like I finally had the perfect anecdote to write that. 

Then I opened Twitter.

Rhonda Faehn had been hired as an assistant coach to replace Scott Vetere, who left Michigan after having an inappropriate relationship with a student-athlete. As can be expected, Faehn’s position with USA Gymnastics over the course of the last three years — particularly during the Larry Nassar scandal — spurred a significant amount of Twitter replies criticizing the program for its hire after Vetere’s departure.

As I switched between tabs of frustrated comments and my 345 words of national championship titles and All-American women and Big Ten records, it felt like my column about women that helped emphasize a trend of female success in sports didn’t matter anymore. Especially after the University’s announcement that the athletic department ended its contract with Faehn on Sunday night, barely four days after her hire, all I could think about were scandalous situations that seemed to mar a history of success. 

Right now, the conversation seems to be based around whether hiring Faehn was right or wrong — for me, that discussion seems to miss a broader point. 

When you hear about scandals in major football programs like Ohio State or Penn State, you also hear about the years and years of storied success that accompany those programs. Even amid a domestic violence case he was suspended for mishandling, announcers praised Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer for battling through “adversity” throughout the scandal. 

That’s because these teams’ athletic successes, no matter how small or big, can make headlines for weeks, or even months on end, engraving a predisposed way of thinking that involves greatness and respect. It primes a lack of accountability, using on-field success as an excuse for off-field, bureaucratic and administrative errors. 

I’m definitely not making the argument that the team’s hiring of Faehn should be excused because of its history of success — that’s a part of the problem with college athletic scandals and schools’ lack of accountability. But for women’s teams, all you hear are the controversies; an assistant coach crosses boundaries and a hire was made, and suddenly a group of young women are forced to rebuild a historic reputation they had fight to get noticed for in the first place. 

Those controversies stick. When you Google “Ohio State football,” there isn’t a single word about domestic violence or Meyer mentioned anywhere on the first page of results just a few months out of the scandal. When you search “Michigan State gymnastics,” the entire front page, save for roster and schedule links, is centered around Nassar — completely scratching the program entirely.

For Michigan, the past two major headlines have been the hiring of Faehn and the firing of Vetere — both very important topics for discussion, but not to the point that they need to completely dominate the image of the program. Accomplishments of these teams are so easily replaced with scandals, and unlike football programs, they suffer longer and harder for it.

But the women’s gymnastics team has done so much good in relation to the reputation of women’s sports at Michigan, and whether Faehn is on staff or not, that shouldn’t be written off.

You’ve got coach Bev Plocki redeveloping an almost non-existent team from the ground up. You’ve got 14 women who somehow manage to flip through the air so well that they went into this weekend ranked sixth in the nation. You’ve got an alum of the men’s team who has absolutely no problem telling you that women fill up his team’s old stomping ground and not sounding even remotely contempt about it, all while waiting to watch a movie that chronicles a badass woman and her fight against laws that discriminate on the basis of sex. 

I didn’t want this column to be about Faehn, because I wanted it to be about a strong team of women who are advancing the culture of athletics at Michigan. If a guy in a movie theater can see that clearly, so can we. 

Byler can be reached at dbyler@umich.edu or on Twitter @laneybyler.