A glance at the two Michigan varsity jackets lying side-by-side was all anyone needed to realize something was wrong.
One jacket, given to former male athletes, features a block M displayed in the normal hue of maize that those who watch Michigan athletics have come accustomed to seeing. The other jacket, given to former women athletes who played on varsity teams from 1973 to 1991, features a smaller, darker block M — along with sleeves that are a different color from the first jacket.
To former Wolverines, many of whom brought up the issue throughout the years, this discrepancy in varsity jackets wasn’t just a matter of a difference in design. It was a matter of equality.
“I was excited about earning the letter jacket,” said Melanie Barnett, a former cross country runner. “By the time I earned mine in 1980, we were all well aware of the situation, which was that women were supposed to be getting the ‘real’ jacket when in fact we were getting the alternative.”
Erin Finn, a senior track-and-field athlete, first found out about the inequity as a freshman when she attended a panel on the issue and was immediately drawn in. She persisted in reminding people of the issue, and she asked for something to be done.
So when Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel decided that it was time for the athletic department to correct its past mistake, Finn was asked to write a letter to the group of women who would receive the new jackets.
Barnett had only found out about the decision after it had been approved by the athletic department, receiving an email from Manuel.
She admits she was surprised at first. The whole process had taken such a long time that she thought it was never going to happen, and so she pored over the words several times before it really sunk in.
But that wasn’t the last time Barnett would be surprised.
One day in mid-July, a couple months after receiving the email from Manuel, she found Finn and several of Finn’s teammates at her door.
Finn had also been tasked with delivering the new and improved varsity jackets to local alumni starting in July — one of whom was Barnett.
“That was just over the top cool,” Barnett said. “It was unexpected, and it just made the whole thing extra special and so meaningful to me to (see) that these young women cared enough to do that and are grateful for what we did back in the day.”
Added Finn: “Most of the (alumni) don’t cry, but you can tell they’re trying to hold back teary-eyed emotion. They get this completely joyful smile. They’re just so happy to finally have their jacket — it’s like now they’re finally accepted. It’s a wonderful feeling for them, and you can tell that they’re just so excited, so happy and so thankful that Michigan did the right thing.”
Finn, one of several returning veterans for the Wolverines next year, used the opportunity as a chance to educate her teammates.
“I’ve been trying to let everyone know that things haven’t always been as good as they have now,” Finn said. “Women didn’t always have equal opportunities. I’ve just been reminding everyone how lucky we are and trying to get (people) involved in helping hand out the jackets so they can see on a first-hand level how lucky we really are.
“It’s an incredible honor. I can’t even begin to express my thanks to these women for setting the precedent of what it means to be a Michigan woman and opening these opportunities that we get to experience today because of what they went through. To be able to thank them myself and to see the joy on their faces when they received their jackets was so, so special. I can’t even put it into words.”
Meanwhile, Barnett is already anticipating the opportunity to proudly wear her new varsity jacket back in her old stomping grounds.
“(The jacket) feels great,” Barnett said. “It’s been a little hot to wear it (outside), but I will this fall. I’m looking forward to wearing it to a football game and a cross country meet.”