'That's the way it is': Sheryl Szady's fight against the status quo

Thursday, March 28, 2019 - 6:19pm

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Courtesy of Sheryl Szady

In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its second annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. We continue the series with this story from Daily Sports Editor Paige Voeffray.

Women’s athletics has come a long way since the first official varsity Michigan teams took the field in 1973. So much so that it’s easy to take what the women have today for granted. Each team is equipped with multiple coaches, trainers and nutritionists to stay in peak condition. All the athletes are given stacks of new clothes every season to make sure they’re looking their best. They’re even flown all over the country to compete against the best teams.

This is common practice — almost expected.

But it wasn’t always this way.

There were many women that came before these athletes that fought and pushed for what they deserved. But there was one woman in particular who couldn’t seem to let it go and wasn’t afraid to take on important people, and every woman who wears a block ‘M’ on their chest has her to thank.

Sheryl Szady didn’t want any attention. She didn’t want to cause any issues. She just wanted to play.

And because of that, Michigan athletics has never been the same.

***

Szady attended Michigan from 1970-1974 and played on the club team for field hockey and basketball. There wasn’t practice equipment or warm-up uniforms, and only some teams would have a volunteer coach if they were lucky. And that might have been suitable for a while, but Szady looked around at the other universities’ varsity programs and wondered how Michigan had fallen so far behind.

The club teams would play the varsity programs from these other universities, but their conditions were nothing alike.

“We were playing the varsity teams at Eastern, Western, Central, Michigan State, Adrian, as a club team,” Szady said. “I mean I’m calling the varsity coach as a club team being like, ‘Can we schedule a game?’ And they’re picking the day, I mean I had like no clout. They were like, ‘Thank you for playing us.’ ”

Szady recalls washing her own uniform after every game, sharing 12 rolls of athletic tape over a season, and even driving across the state in a teammate’s roommate’s sister’s friend’s car. It seems trivial, but this was a big deal to these women.

“We don't want more. We don't want to take from (the men),” said Michigan softball coach, women’s athletics advocate and essentially the face of women’s athletics at Michigan, Carol Hutchins.

“Nobody ever wanted to take away their opportunity. We just wanted to have the same opportunity. And funny how they found a way to fund it because you can find a way to fund whatever you think is important.”

This situation wasn’t ideal, but for the time being, it worked — until it didn’t.

In the March of her junior year, Szady began to call her usual set of coaches to schedule games for the next season, but they all turned her down. Her friend Linda Laird, the women's club basketball manager, experienced the same thing.

“Finally, the field hockey coach from Eastern called me back and said ‘Sheryl, nobody's going to play you this year,’ Szady said. “We decided to blacklist Michigan until the University elevated their women’s program.’ ”

For Szady, the next step was clear — elevate the program.

***

For most people, taking a club team to the caliber of a varsity team would be a daunting task. Many wouldn’t even know where to start. Title IX had been passed in 1972, however the implementation guidelines weren’t written until 1975, so Title IX wasn’t available for Szady to plead her case.

So as a junior, Szady went after the one thing that makes all athletic departments run: money.

This would go further than a couple of fundraisers. Szady went to the Office of Development and asked to have Women’s Athletics to be added as a solicitation option on the donation cards.

“My thought, at the time, was that if we had enough money, we could run our program at a varsity-type level,” Szady said. “Which is overly simplistic, because you need university support.”

Through her efforts, Szady met with Henry Johnson, the vice president of Student Affairs.

Her initial plan was to ask Johnson for funding, but when other schools decided to stop playing Michigan, she knew they needed a varsity program.

“So we talked and he said to come back in a week, he was going to get me an appointment to talk to Robben Fleming, the president,” Szady said. “And I thought, ‘OK, I just talked to a vice President, I can talk to the president.’ ”

While Johnson couldn’t get Szady on Fleming’s calendar, he secured another opportunity: presenting this situation to the Board of Regents.

Szady and Laird knew they needed to impress the group, so they came in their best outfits and had their materials already prepared. However, there was another group of students presenting before the women. They were requesting that Jewish holidays be considered when making the academic calendar, but their methods weren’t so well received.

“They got up there and were banging on the table,” Szady said. “Good point, wrong delivery. I thought, ‘Oh good, they're just going to love hearing from two more students.’ ”

Each presenter was given five minutes to speak, and the women were never cut off and told their whole story. And it worked.

Fleming asked Marie Hartwig, a professor of Physical Education and long-time advocate of women’s sports and recreation, to head a committee to study women’s intercollegiate athletics. The committee began in April, and by the end of June recommended that six women’s sport club teams be elevated to varsity.  

“Do you know how fast that is?” Szady said. “Fleming received the report and approved it by the end of July. Marie Hartwig called me and said, ‘I just received a message from Fleming’s office, he directed me to start women’s varsity athletics this fall.’ ”

***

At first, Szady and her teammates enjoyed some perks that they weren’t accustomed to. They travelled in University vans, even if the coach and a senior had to be the drivers, and they were given meal money.

One evening, the team went to Big Boy after a game. The women were given $3.50 for a meal, and so after ordering the special for $2.50, they all had one dollar remaining. Szady feared that if they didn't spend the money they would never see it again. So each athlete ordered two pies for dessert.

“Here comes these two trays with these huge pies,” Szady said.“We catch the coaches going, ‘What the hell is going on?’ and we responded, ‘We’re spending our money.’ ”

It was a change of pace to what they were used to, but the women enjoyed it while they could.

They still didn’t have complete uniforms, scholarships or media coverage, but they knew change didn’t happen overnight.

After a gymnast fell of the balance beam and dislocated her elbow, the women were finally granted an athletic trainer.

“Much progress was reactive in nature,” Szady said. “So we stumbled into progress, but if it cost money, it didn’t happen for a long time.”

It was Szady’s firm belief that athletic director Don Canham tried to ignore women’s athletics in hopes that it would go away. It didn’t.

The women continued to see differences in what they received compared to the men. The women were still only playing in-state rivals, while the men had a national schedule. The women would receive small scholarships, but only for the semester that they were in season, while the men received full scholarships. If the men made a postseason run, the athletic department and the NCAA covered the costs, whereas the women had to make their case for athletic department funds, if they were good enough to make it that far.  

Hutchins remembers having teams sell programs at football games or clean Crisler Center after concerts to earn the extra money for the softball team.

“Title IX had passed in ’72 and you saw in the mid and late 70s people realizing that they had to have athletics for women,” Hutchins said. “They had to fund and support teams or they were going to face federal loss of funding, because that’s the penalty of not complying with Title IX. Lawsuits were starting to happen, so having a team doesn’t mean you support it. It means you just have it.”

But Szady wanted just one more thing: varsity awards.

Szady received a lot of pushback from Canham, but she wanted the same varsity awards that the men received, and she wanted the same block ‘M’ on those awards as well. She was told she was on her own — a familiar refrain.

Szady had petitioned the student government for a seat on the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics, and she was quickly granted a spot. Canham assigned her to the Board committee on Varsity Awards. Ultimately, the committee agreed on a new schedule of awards for both men and women: first a jacket, then a plaque, blanket and finally a watch.  

However, the block ‘M’ on the varsity awards was a different matter.  

A motion for varsity awards for men and women with the same block ‘M’ was tabled by Canham when it appeared it would be close to passing. The vote occured six weeks later in June 1975. In the meantime, letters were sent by Athletics to all the Michigan letterwinners — the men of the M-Club.

The letters, one from Bill Mazer, then president of the M-Club, and the other signed by then basketball coach Johnny Orr, and football coach Bo Schembechler expressed similar sentiments.

“The letter read, ‘You can’t allow them to give the same Block ‘M’out, it’s bad enough we're giving them one at all. How can you let them give the same Block ‘M’ for which you bled and sweat on the fields of Michigan for. They want to give your Block ‘M’ to synchronized swimmers and softball players.’ ” Szady recalled.

At this time, Michigan didn’t even have a softball team.

The letter went on to say that if anyone had any issues with this proposed vote, to voice their concerns to the committee members and gave out their home addresses. Szady could fill a paper grocery bag two-thirds of the way full with the letters she received.

Szady remembers one letter in particular that still sticks with her. A doctor wrote to share how displeased he was with what she was trying to do, and wasn’t shy about voicing his thoughts. But at the end of the letter, he drew a picture telling her what kind of block ‘M’ she should get — a bra with the ‘M’ in the cleavage.

On the day of the vote, Szady traveled to Ann Arbor. She had missed the evening news the night before, but Al Ackerman, an NBC Detroit sports anchor, had stated that if Michigan didn’t give the women the same block ‘M’, he would never report another Michigan score on his broadcast again.

This was information Szady wished she had known when Canham called her into his office an hour before the vote.  

Canham immediately asked her what she wanted. She explained she wanted the same block ‘M’ for women as the men. He countered with a blue ‘M’, an old english ‘M’, anything but the yellow block ‘M’. Again, he asked, ‘What do you want?’

“Now in retrospect, I should have said four tickets on the 50 (yard-line) for life,” Szady joked.

Instead, she didn’t waiver, and told Canham she would take her chances with the Board and left for the meeting. The vote passed nearly unanimously with all but one voting against, and the women were going to get their block ‘M’.

Months later, when Szady received her letter jacket in the mail, she opened it to find a jacket with a small, square, orange-colored block ‘M’ — not what she had fought for.  

“And so I call up Marie (Hartwig) and I say ‘What is this?’ And she said ‘It’s the jacket you’re getting.’ Meaning she’s not fighting for this. She fights Canham and she’s probably losing her job,” Szady said. “And I said, 'That’s not right.

“And she said, 'That’s the way it is.’ ”

***

Even when Phyllis Ocker became athletic director, she couldn’t do anything to change the letters until Canham’s influence was completely gone. The culture he created was so entrenched that no progress could be made.

“I remember the jacket. I used to hand them out to my student athletes. They were ugly,” Hutchins said. “And in their own right, it’s not that they weren’t nice looking, but then (the men) had the letter jacket, and then we had that.”

It wasn’t until 1991-92 that the athletic director at the time, Jack Weidenbach, started to give women the same block ‘M’ on the same leather-sleeved jacket as the men.

For forty years, she talked to anyone she could. She wrote letters and made phone calls, but to no avail. It wasn’t until she ran into current athletic director Warde Manuel after a women’s basketball game that things really started to be put in motion. She approached him about her idea for giving 18 years worth of athletes the appropriate jackets, and Manuel said that it was definitely going to happen.

Szady wouldn’t believe it until she saw it. While out to dinner in April 2016, she received the long-awaited email from Manuel acknowledging the fundamental role played by the early women letterwinners, and the re-issuing of their varsity jackets with today’s varsity jacket. Only then did she share her joy with all the other restaurant diners.

After the initial wave, the University received 120 orders of new jackets. The University was pleased with itself, but Szady wasn’t satisfied.

After doing her own outreach, the University received 647 jacket orders. But by her estimates, 881 of the 900 women had been contacted.

Her work was done. But she wasn’t satisfied.

Szady organized for as many ‘Jacket Gals’, as Szady and the women refer to themselves, to get together at a football game. About 300 women came from all over the country with their families to celebrate, and the icing on the cake was they were going to hold the banner before the start of the game.

Until they weren’t. Weeks before the game, Szady received a phone call explaining how there were too many Jacket Gals and that they would be bigger than the marching band. Szady knew the women would be crushed. Szady also suspected that if they were football players, they would be holding the banner on the field.

So she did what she does best — let right win out.

“Meeting with Athletics, I said, ‘You know people are going to be really mad about this. They bought tickets, they’ve got airplane tickets, they got hotel rooms and they expect to be recognized on the field,’ ” Szady said. “And Letterwinners M club just went very silent. And the guy in Athletics said ‘Sheryl, people are still calling saying why do we even have women on the football field.’

“And I couldn't believe he repeated that.”

After the Jacket Gals shared their concerns, the issue was resolved with all 300 Jacket Gals honored on the field at halftime. As Szady led the 300 in their new jackets with the right M out of the tunnel onto the field, she finally felt like all her hard work had paid off.

***

There were times when Szady never thought the conditions would improve. Everyone seemed so set in their ways that progress seemed unlikely.

Even in current times she still faces struggles that people wouldn’t expect. But when she sees what the female athletes have now, she loves it.

“I know a lot of women, and Sheryl Szady’s one of them, who fought like hell for that. And went through a lot of shit — for lack of a better word — from people who treated her poorly,” Hutchins said. “I know a lot of people who were fired in that era and to this day are still fired when they bring up the inequities that still exist. Because there still are inequities.

“We’ve come so far and it’s taken a lot of people who are vigilant. And people have talked about Title IX that we don't need it anymore, because ‘Oh look at what you women have.’ I say you don’t take down speed limit signs, because people will start driving 90. You have to have a law because we need boundaries. … If they were going to do the right thing, they would have done it then.”

Szady and Hutchins can both agree that women’s athletics still has strides to make. Szady has some more ideas for how the athletic department could change, but she won’t rest until things are equal.

Truly equal.