Standing in the middle of a dimly lit room, surrounded by generations of Michigan athletes, Marissa Pollick can’t help but smile.
Tables of modest food, per NCAA rules, surround her as the ‘M’ Club celebrates its newest members. Historical showcases and plaques honoring every former letter winner and championship team line the walls. Decades of athletic greatness fill the room, with memories of Bennie Oosterbaan, Barry Larkin, Charles Woodson and Cazzie Russell among the thousands of others who wore the block ‘M’ with pride.
Bright-eyed freshman student-athletes fill the room taking in their newest community. It’s a diverse group, Caucasians and African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. But most importantly to Pollick, men and women.
During the reception, Pollick begins to engage a student-athlete before a different conversation catches her attention. She watches as an older colleague of hers, a man who played football when her late father went to Michigan in the late 1940s, approaches a female athlete to congratulate her.
“We’re so glad you’re here,” he says. “We’re really pleased you gals are here.”
The comment takes the athlete by surprise, but not Pollick. She’d spent her entire career working toward this point as a tennis player, as ‘M’ Club president and as a professor.
“They were like, ‘Why wouldn’t we be here?’ ” Pollick says. “It was just a completely different mentality. And of course, now they’re on a full scholarship, they were recruited, but the perception from the older generation is so different.”
Moments like this transport Pollick back to her freshman year, a time so vastly different from today that she sometimes struggles to grasp it. And while she’d never say so, Pollick played an invaluable role in bringing Michigan and its legions of female athletes to this moment in the ‘M’ Room.
But what’s even more impressive is what Pollick did for the University after the experience she had on campus. Because in the not-so-distant past, the situation was bleak, and Pollick found herself at the center of it all.
* * *
Forty years have passed, but Pollick can still smell the building.
It was large and made of brick, with big half-moon windows that had weathered panes. A track was just outside, and everything looked new and pristine when Pollick first saw it.
In 1974, the University had just built a brand-new indoor track and tennis facility that had six lanes, a pole vault and long jump, and high jump pits in the middle. There were five tennis courts and locker rooms for all the teams. In typical Michigan fashion, it was a revolutionary addition to the athletic campus.
So when Pollick arrived on campus as a freshman that fall with hopes of playing tennis, she couldn’t wait to use the new facility.
That year was the first in which the University offered varsity women’s athletics. With the passage of Title IX two years earlier, the vaunted Wolverines community was forced to accept the inevitable truth: it was time to include women.
And — albeit begrudgingly — Athletic Director Don Canham created six women’s teams starting in the fall of ’74.
The fresh smell of the athletic facilities could have symbolized a new start women were being given at the University.
But the smell of promise and opportunity isn’t what Pollick remembers.
No, she remembers the bathrooms.
“So they built those new locker rooms, but they didn’t build any women’s locker rooms,” Pollick said. “We used the back bathrooms of the building, and I can literally still smell it.”
In the bathroom, the pseudo-locker room for the women’s teams, each player received a blue folding chair and one uniform. No cubbies or hooks, no showers or training space — just that blue metal folding chair.
* * *
As a woman in the early 1970s, athletic opportunities were scarce. But Pollick, the daughter of a lawyer and outspoken from an early age, wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.
Hailing from suburban Detroit, she started playing tennis at the age of 10 and added to her credentials by racking up tournament wins and rankings. When she got to Berkley High School (Mich.), the school didn’t have a women’s team, so she tried out for the men’s.
Along with another girl, Pollick made the cut based solely on her performance. But despite the passage of Title IX, there was a law that barred mixed-team participation. And no one yet understood the true power of Title IX.
Meanwhile at Ann Arbor Huron High School, the same situation played out: Two girls were barred from participating in men’s tennis. In response, they sued the school under the 14th Amendment. They won.
The verdict allowed Pollick to play that year.
“The impact was really unbelievable,” Pollick said. “People didn’t like it, and it got a lot of publicity, but the next year our school had a girl’s team as did hundreds across the state. … What’s ridiculous is the reasons these schools gave to not have programs included that there wasn’t sufficient interest in varsity tennis … which is just silly.
“The interest is a function of opportunity. That’s always been the case.”
That win for Pollick was just the first step. A few years later, she found herself in Ann Arbor with the hope of being part of the elite club of Michigan varsity athletes.
She saw them as the storied group with the right to wear the block ‘M’ emblazoned on their jackets and having access to the top facilities and coaches. These were the athletes her own mother and father had cheered on when they were at Michigan. She dreamed of becoming a member of the group, and to eventually graduate and become part of the ‘M’ Club.
So imagine Pollick’s surprise when she first saw her locker room.
“When I got to Michigan, Title IX was in place, but it wasn’t enforced,” she remembered. “Our Athletic Director, Don Canham, was one of the leading opponents of Title IX in the nation and he made no secret of it.
“A lot of major athletic directors thought the enactment of this law would lead to the ruination of college athletics.”
Canham’s reluctance to open up athletics to women was evident. The women’s tennis team was allowed just three practices a week, typically at night during dinnertime. At any point, if a men’s team needed the track and tennis building, the women were bumped.
During Pollick’s freshman year, her coach was a woman from the local community with nominal tennis experience. While the men’s team flew to matches, the women’s players took buses or, in many cases, had to drive themselves. In hotels, they slept four to a room, two to a bed.
Female athletes received a per diem amounting to less than half of what the men received.
“We didn’t even play a full conference schedule,” Pollick said. “The other schools far exceeded our resources. It was very embarrassing. Even Michigan State was farther along in terms of opportunities for women.
“It was blatant discrimination.”
But as the daughter of two lawyers, Pollick wasn’t going to accept the situation as sufficient. So, as a freshman, she shared her story with The Michigan Daily.
“The headline at the Daily read, ‘Facility lacks women’s locker rooms,” Pollick said. “Even at that point, there was recognition that this wasn’t right. Even if people weren’t aware of Title IX, they were still saying, ‘You’re not going to have locker rooms?’
“So it became a major story. I got called into see the Athletic Director — not the big guy, because he wouldn’t bother, but a woman who was lower down the totem pole.”
She told Pollick she wasn’t permitted to talk to the press. And while that may have been her first scolding at Michigan, it certainly wasn’t the last.
* * *
Pollick next dealt with Title IX backlash at the end of her freshman year, when all student athletes were to receive their letterman jacket, emblazoned with the block ‘M’. The Athletic Department didn’t know how to handle the situation, because it was the first year women had varsity sports, and it didn’t want to give them the same jacket as the men.
“Mr. Canham was vehemently opposed to giving women a block ‘M,’ ” Pollick said. “So he enlisted Bo Schembechler and John Orr, the football and basketball coaches, respectively, to join a national letter campaign through our ‘M’ Club.”
Canham and both coaches sent out a packet of letters to all the ‘M’ Club alumni, including President Gerald Ford, hoping to recruit them to their cause.
In letters held in the Bentley Historical Library, Schembechler ended his letter by saying, “I believe that if this comes to pass, we will very shortly petition to change the award for football, rather than give identical awards for football and women’s sports.”
Orr expressed similar concerns, writing that the award would “minimize incentive” for his players because “the level of performance that the man has to exhibit are far above those of the woman.”
But after significant ridicule and backlash, the Athletic Department decided that women would receive a block ‘M’ jacket. So Pollick was surprised when the women received a different-looking jacket. Instead of the traditional leather sleeves, this one had wool, and the ‘M’ wasn’t the same.
“The ‘M’ was smaller and it was sort of misshapen,” Pollick said. “It wasn’t the block ‘M’ that we know today, so I went into the same director I dealt with (after the Daily fallout) and I said, ‘What is this? This is an imitation, it’s not a block ‘M’.’
“And she said to me, ‘You girls should be glad with what you have. … It’s smaller because girls are smaller.’ I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Several women at the University refused to wear the jacket while others decided to transfer to other schools with equal opportunities for women. Though some were just happy to receive the jacket, many were upset with the inequity on campus.
Two years later, during Pollick’s junior season, the University offered its first women’s athletic scholarship. For the tennis team, four scholarships were offered. But there were 10 players on the team.
“So we had to play each other (for the scholarships),” Pollick said. “It’s almost unbelievable in retrospect.”
Pollick was one of the players to win one, making her part of the first class of women to earn scholarships at the University under Title IX.
* * *
During Pollick’s years on campus, the environment slowly improved. The budget slowly went up, and the coaching became more prestigious.
“But overall, the program at Michigan was so far out of compliance it was really shocking,” Pollick said.
And it wasn’t just the student-athletes who faced inequities, but the coaches too. Female coaches received 10-month contracts, compared to the men’s 12. All women coaches received significantly less pay and were assigned other duties, such as organizing travel for the entire department or overseeing equipment.
“Or take (Michigan softball coach) Carol Hutchins, for example,” Pollick said. “She was signed by Mr. Canham and had to (also) do graphic design, which is sort of hilarious.”
For Michigan, the real change came in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when the University hired Athletic Director Jack Weidenbach. Before officially taking the post in 1990, Weidenbach worked below the Athletic Director in associate positions. He worked under Schembechler, who held the position from 1988 to 1990.
“They started by adding sports and then supporting them, which was critical. It has to be the same quality of treatment, which was our biggest problem,” Pollick said. “We had no resources and no respect. Under Jack Weidenbach, things improved.”
With Michigan moving toward compliance, Pollick graduated and attended Michigan Law School, where only 20 percent of her class was female. After graduating, she continued her work fighting for Title IX.
In 1993, despite the University introducing women’s sports 19 years earlier, the ‘M’ club permitted women to join its ranks.
In that same year, Pollick and two other women became the first female board members. Their first order of business: changing the bylaws to include women.
Six years after joining the club, Pollick was elected president, the first female to hold the position.
Today, Pollick is a professor in the School of Kinesiology, where she lectures on sports law and gender inequities in sport while constantly maintaining an eye on Title IX legislation.
“There’s always work to be done,” Pollick said. “There’s no law in intercollegiate athletics that’s been more controversial or misunderstood than Title IX.”
* * *
As Pollick stands in that room among ‘M’ Club members, both old and new, she can’t help but reflect.
She recently reunited with her old tennis teammates — a great opportunity for the alumni to come back and mingle with former and current players.
Celebrating how far women’s athletics has come is critical, but nothing surpasses the need to educate current athletes on why they have opportunities to play.
“I make a point to always talk to the women’s teams to share the history,” Pollick said. “This didn’t just happen and it’s a function of many people, not just me, and the law. As a lawyer, I’m proud of that because you’d think these changes would’ve happened, but without the law, the Canhams of the world would’ve prevailed.”
She looks around at her fellow Wolverines smiling. Pollick knows it will soon be their turn to continue the work she’s spent the last 40 years defending.
“I love my experience as it was, but I recognize inequities,” Pollick said. “I continue to stay involved in spite of it, and I think I can do more of a service than being bitter.
“Now Michigan women’s athletics is a premier program and is a great example of compliance.”
The athletic budget, which once stood at $84,000 for women, has exponentially grown. In 2012, the Michigan Athletic Department spent roughly $19 million on women’s athletic expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
But a growth in money doesn’t always mean compliance, and if Pollick has learned anything, it’s that her work with Title IX is never done. The days of the blue folding chairs are over, but when she walks by the old tennis center, she still remembers that smell.