UM makes amends: New jackets for female athletes

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Every now and then, Melanie Weaver Barnett contemplated going out and buying a real Michigan varsity jacket.

Melanie Weaver Barnett, class of ’83, receives her jacket from UM athletes Jamie Morrissey, left, Erin Finn and Haley Meier.

But then a thought would cross her mind she shouldn’t have to. The track and field hall of fame inductee already had a jacket, just one that was different.

From 1973-91, female varsity letter-winners at Michigan weren’t awarded jackets with a maize block “M” and leather sleeves like their male counterparts. Rather, their jacket was all navy wool and featured a skinnier, orange block “M.”

Michigan officials made changes, and women began receiving the same jackets as the men in 1992, but it still didn’t make up for the fact Barnett, a 1983 graduate, and hundreds of other women were without one.

Until Wednesday night, when Barnett was one of the roughly 700 women to receive their new jackets this week.

As an added touch, Barnett, who resides in Ann Arbor, had her jacket hand-delivered to her by three members of the women’s track and field team: Erin Finn, Jamie Morrissey and Haley Meier.

“I got a Twitter message from Erin saying, ‘Hey, when are you going to be home? We have a surprise for you,’” said Barnett, chief executive education officer at Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “I knew the jackets had been arriving so I thought, ‘Wow, they must be making sure I’m home before they drop off the box.’ I got home at 8 p.m. and at 8:15 p.m. there was a knock on the door and I was surprised.

“It was a lump in the throat and tears in the eyes even while you have a smile on your face kind of moment. It was really incredible.”

As a freshman in 1986 Mindy Rowand Schmidt received the jacket on the left, all navy wool and featuring a skinnier, orange block “M.” Her new jacket sports the maize “M” and leather sleeves.

Getting new jackets for women letter-winners from 1973-91 was a topic of discussion for decades, and one spearheaded by former Michigan field hockey captain Sheryl Szady, a 1974 graduate, for years.

A resolution was set in motion last fall when former interim athletic director Jim Hackett and Bob De Carolis, who served as a senior adviser to Hackett, kick-started the process. When athletic director Warde Manuel was hired in late January, the project was one of the first things that crossed his desk — and he green-lighted the decision.

As a result, Manuel and the Michigan athletic department reached out to all 897 women varsity letter-winners from that era offering them a new varsity jacket, the same one supplied to Michigan men and women since 1992.

Schmidt models her new jacket. The design for women athletes made it seem “like we weren’t worthy of wearing the block ‘M,’ ” she said.

All the costs were paid for by the athletic department, which also worked with M Den officials and used their facility to mail all the jackets to those outside the Ann Arbor area, like Erdenheim, Pa. resident Mindy Rowand Schmidt.

Schmidt attended Michigan from 1986-91 and lettered in cross country and track. When she received her varsity jacket her freshman year, she was honored, yet couldn’t help but feel bummed.

“At the time, it just didn’t seem quite fair,” said Schmidt, a five-time All-American and four-time Big Ten champion. “It just felt like we weren’t worthy of wearing the block ‘M.’”

Schmidt couldn’t believe the news when she heard about Michigan’s offer from her sister-in-law, Cathy Schmidt, and couldn’t wait to take a picture in her new jacket when it arrived Tuesday, rectifying something many thought was long overdue.

“I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t have a little bit of disdain for my old jacket because it just felt like it was lesser than,” said Schmidt, a physical therapist assistant. “It is a little bit of nostalgia and speaks to history about how far things have come for women’s athletics through the years.

“I think there’s a lot of symbolism behind it, too. I think it really speaks to how Michigan keeps doing things right and really getting it right after all these years.”

Finn, who just finished her junior year, was angry when she found out that at one time women weren’t awarded the same jackets, and wanted justice. So for the past couple years, she would pester whoever she could to let them know something needed to be done.

And when things were finally put in motion, Finn was honored to a write a thank you letter to each “Michigan Woman” that accompanied every package.

She also jumped at the chance to be part of a small contingent of track and field athletes — which included teammates Sami Michell and Aaron Howell — that has been making special deliveries in the Ann Arbor area since Tuesday.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” said Finn, who broke Barnett’s 31-year-old record in the 10,000-meter run in 2014. “I mean the smiles that light up these women’s faces are truly heartwarming.

“It just feels so good to be part of this project that Michigan is doing and I’m so proud to be part of an athletic department that is recognizing its past mistakes, making up for them and honoring these women who really set the stage for the future of women’s athletics at Michigan.”


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins