On Nov. 20 in East Lansing, the Michigan volleyball team took the court against in-state rival Michigan State on the popular Jam the Jenison night. Maize and blue and green and white filled the 6,000-seat fieldhouse. The Spartan band’s sound bounced off the aluminum roof blocking out the cheers from the fans.
Looking back at the game last fall, it’s hard to imagine that scene now — with the pandemic still raging — but it’s even harder to picture it 50 years ago. Women’s athletics have not always been a norm; in fact, it’s been a twisting road to get to where it is now.
“I think it’s amazing,” Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen said. “People want to argue about whether Title IX has importance or not — I can just point to the recent history of women’s athletics. You have seen the growth, it’s been exponential.”
Michigan did not allow women to participate on the varsity level until valiant efforts made by women finally succeeded in 1973. Even in the following years, they still did not receive equal treatment and the battle continued well into the early 1990s — until finally, the Title IX guidelines went into effect and the University started giving more necessary support.
“(Michigan’s women’s athletic historian Sheryl Szady led) the first group of people that were fighting to get varsity athletics for women and achieved it,” Rosen said. “… I have so much respect for the people that came from that era and really built the foundation for us to do what we do.”
Szady attended Michigan from 1970-1974 and played club basketball and field hockey. She led many battles — including the fight for varsity status, allowing women to wear the same block ‘M’ that male athletes were given and for equal levels of funding for women sports.
“I know a lot of women, and Sheryl Szady’s one of them, who fought like hell for that,” Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins told the Daily in 2019. “And went through a lot of shit — for lack of a better word — from people who treated her poorly.”
Most Wolverines’ women coaches hold the highest regard for Szady and the others that won these early fights for female quality. However, most if not all would agree there is still much more to do.
Rosen is thrown into this fight for equality for women as he coaches a women’s team and deals with these issues first-hand.
“To be honest, I don’t know any different, because I’ve always coached women,” Rosen said. “In volleyball, it’s kind of unique because there aren’t really many male opportunities. … The only option was to coach women if I were to coach volleyball.”
He has been coaching volleyball for 21 years and his career extends beyond that. It’s apparent that Rosen has a love for the game and a passion for teaching.
However, politics is not irrelevant, and it can be an awkward situation, as he leads a team of women as a man. In fact, a study done by the NCAA in 2016 found that only about a little over 40% of female sports teams are actually coached by women.
While there are many theories out there that can address the lack of women in leadership roles even in their own sports, it’s apparent that the most reasonable one is that they haven’t been given a chance.
Coaching in any sport for any gender is a hard job. Add in the false gender roles society has assigned to women and it makes coaching hard to reach.
“If you want to raise a family, it’s a difficult profession, whether it’s for a male or a female,” Rosen said. “ … A lot of people we’ve seen in this profession that are great coaches and they’re female, have gotten out because they have gotten to an age where they need to devote more time to their families. I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s something we’ve got to address, figure out.”
His passion to want to be there for his team leads him to make efforts outside of the game and to make decisions that could benefit his players.
“I always want to and will always have strong female coaches on my staff,” Rosen said, “because I think it is important for our student athletes to be coached by women, to have that opportunity to see them in leadership roles like that.
“I want our players … to see women in leadership roles in every aspect,” he said, “whether it is as athletic directors, as sport administrators, as professors, as coaches. You want them to see that as a viable option for them.”
It’s even something that Rosen tries to solve on a more national level, as the president of the American Coaches Volleyball Association.
“We need more women in the coaching world,” Rosen said. “I only look at it from a volleyball perspective. I am the president of our national coaching association; it’s something we talk about all the time.”
Rosen’s approach to combating generations-long stereotypes is to give women the opportunity to lead and prove the stereotypes wrong. Whether it will have a positive effect is largely still unknown, but there are signs that it might, even in Rosen’s own family.
Rosen’s wife, Leisa, is an associate coach on the volleyball team. He values her presence and her expertise. Leisa has worked alongside her husband for 21 years, and her insights are extremely valuable, Rosen says.
“When I grew up, my mom was highly competitive but she had no avenue for that competitive nature,” he said. “… Fast forward to my kids, their mom (Leisa) is a collegiate associate coach. Sports are her life, in terms of her profession. … They look at her as an athlete.”
Rosen remains optimistic that the next generation — that includes his own children — will begin to view things differently than those in the past. He celebrates the progress he’s seen in his own life and looks forward to what the future might hold for women sports.
“If you think about it, men’s sports — baseball, basketball, football — have had a 100-year head start,” he said. “Yeah, the NCAA (men’s basketball) Tournament is a giant money maker and football is a giant money maker but they’ve had a 100-year head start. I think that certainly women’s athletics are moving in that direction. Who knows where we’ll be in 100 years from now?
“Hopefully we’re going to have pro leagues in the U.S., we’re gonna have giant TV followings but certainly we’d say in the last 30 to 40 years that the trend is moving in the right direction.”