Leading the Way: Northern Michigan Women in Sports Leadership

Over the last year, we’ve seen huge strides for women in athletics. These strides have been seen in many facets, whether it was playing, coaching, managing or officiating.

Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller was the first female to play and score in a Power 5 football game. The Miami Marlin’s Kim Ng became the first female general manager in the MLB. There were more women with on-field roles during this year’s Super Bowl than ever before, including Sarah Thomas becoming the first female to officiate the game.

These women have set themselves apart, becoming some of the firsts in their field or arenas.

Change is happening, especially in athletics and there are some great examples in northern Michigan.

“I think there’s a lot of change,” said Central Michigan University athletic director, Amy Folan. “I think we’re evolving and people progress. I think that the people before me who were the one and the only probably had it the worst and I’m grateful to them for making this more common and more acceptable.”

“That was my point about sports right?” added Folan. “It really does kind of regardless of where you’re from or what you do everybody can speak that common language when it gets down to it athletics really is a place for society for centuries that really breaks down barriers and makes people that wouldn’t otherwise interact come together for a common goal and you really get to know each other and it helps advance societal change in a positive way.”

CMU’s Amy Folan, the GLIAC’s Kris Dunbar and long-time high school AD Karen Leinaar have been trailblazers and have paved the way for others like them.

“The girls can see they can do anything they want. I didn’t have those people,” said Leinaar. “I had that a few times, ‘Karen you know you’re the first’, well good I’m glad I’m the first but that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want people to know they can come after me.Karen Leinaar Retires0

Leinaar has been a high school athletic director for almost four decades, retiring this year. Since starting in the 1980’s, she has made huge contribution to Michigan high school sports and says she has had a lot of help and support along the way, but there were always some bumps in the road.

“When I started in 1984, I was one of 27 women in the state of Michigan at that time. I was very often sitting in a room for a meeting as the only female in the room,” said Leinaar. “And were there bad experiences? Sure there were. Were there off colored jokes? But you know what that was a part of the day. And I learned from the get-go you have to have thick skin.”

Krisdunbar2It was a similar experience for Sault Ste. Marie native Kris Dunbar. After two decades as a player, coach and athletic director at Lake Superior State, she is now the commissioner of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. In this role, she is one of only four female league commissioners in Division II.

This hasn’t been her only time as one of the few at the table, but has been most of her career.

“For me it wasn’t just being the only female in the room, it was being the only young female in the room.” said Dunbar. “I was very fortunate to have some opportunities early in my career, so you look around at not just males, but older males with considerably more experience.”

She says some of her success as a women in sports leadership comes from being confident and strong, which are attributes she gained while being an athlete herself.

“I think that women have shown themselves to be competent, girls have shown themselves to be competent on the playing field and I think when you’re athletic and you’re battling everyday on the court or the field, you get some respect that way that you’re ready to get in there and fight and battle and I think you’re used to that as athlete growing up that you’re constantly having to prove yourself and it’s just something that you’ve grown up with and you’re used to and you expect when you walk into a room,” added Dunbar.

Another first happened in Mount Pleasant this past year, Amy Folan was named the first female athletic director in Central Michigan University’s history, an institution known for it’s strong female leadership. Amy Folan

“I feel very fortunate to even be in the chair,” said Folan. “They’re very hard jobs to get and when you have great schools like Central Michigan University it’s very competitive so I’m just honored to be here but obviously the great tradition of women that have been leaders here from Fran Koenig, Marcy Weston, Margo Jonker, Christy Freese, Sue Guevara, and honestly just in the state. Obviously women are able to be successful at the highest level.”

The success did not always come easy, and she is part of the only 15% of Division I athletic directors that are female.

“I think a lot of people when I said I aspired to do this, to be honest early on people laughed,” added Folan. “Because I think there were three when I was in college and there’s a lot more today. But a lot of people opened doors and let me sit at tables and that was a credit to a lot of men as many women that were breaking the barriers because if they didn’t let me have that opportunity I wouldn’t be prepared and be able be in the athletic director role.”

All three women had different journeys and experiences to get to where they are today, but agree on a few things.

There has been change, but it’s not quite where it needs to be.

“We should all be looked at the same way that we can accomplish what needs to be done on a daily basis and do it well. And gender shouldn’t be but it is and will be probably for a long time,” said Leinaar.

They believe that confidence, passion and grace will go a long way to help you in this industry.

“You can tell sometimes that you are one of the few around but I think life can be hard and success comes in many different forms and I think sometimes you realize how fortunate you are if you are one of the few in the room to have that opportunity,” added Folan.

They also said what helped them be successful were great mentors, coworkers, and their support systems. And now that they have made it to where they want to be, that they believe you should become those mentors and offer help.

“You want to hang around and be around people that help you get to where you want to go and a lot of people have been in the shoes of where you want to be so don’t be afraid to reach out to those,” said Dunbar. “It’s nice to see that young women have things to aspire to that they never thought they could before and I like being a part of that and I hope I can be helpful along the way.”

These are just three women who have made their way, but there are plenty more examples in our area that are influencing others to go after what they want and do what they love.