Volleyball coach Jen Fry is bringing equality to the playing field

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A former standout college volleyball player and 15-year coaching veteran, Jen Fry seeks to take the lessons from sport and help apply them to making sports better as a educational consultant

When Jen Fry looks at her life in sports, she says it opened her doors to a wide world. Today, she works to enhance inclusion across sports.

Fry’s experiences playing and coaching led her to hang up her whistle and start her own educational support and consulting firm, JenFryTalks. Since then, she has worked with various university athletic departments, advisory groups and athletic conferences, all for the purpose of diversifying sports.

“We’re not just talking about a subject. We’re talking about the fact that people have to start critically analyzing themselves in ways that they never had to think about before,” Fry noted.

The work takes on additional focus in a time when the sports world has been especially active in a greater movement toward social political change. The renewed push for racial equity intersects with issues that always surrounded sports in general, and gender equity on the playing field in particular.

“The idea of sports not being political is the biggest lie people are told,” Fry said. “Everything in sport is political. Who plays? Who gets paid? Who gets to own a team? Whose voices are important and how athletes are talked about, is political.”

In a 2019 TEDx talk, Fry brands herself as “that musty kid that you saw playing around with the twig and berries and their hair”. She grew up as a sports-loving girl in Arizona who played everything, including football. But the door to her future was found on a volleyball court.

Fry was an all-conference selection in junior college at Arizona Western. She headed east to NCAA Division II Montevallo University (Ala.), and was an All-Gulf South Conference selection as an outside hitter in 2000, and still stands among the all-time school leaders in kills and blocks in a single game. She moved into coaching as an assistant at three programs, and in 2007, was hired as head coach at Norfolk State, a Division 1 school.

The experience for a woman from the west coaching at a historically black college in the south was a key catalyst towards the work Fry does now. “Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t know about HBCUs, so being able to coach at one just opened my eyes to the culture, the people, the love and the loyalty,” she said. “I felt that it was my homecoming and it was just at the different level to see Black excellence at all times.”

Jen Fry holds a ball
As an assistant at Illinois 2011, Fry was part of a staff that led the Fighting Illini to an appearance in a national championship final match. Illinois fell short of a national title in a loss to UCLA

After leaving Norfolk State, she was an assistant and three other schools, including coaching on an Illinois staff in 2011 that reached the NCAA Division I National Finals.

But now, Fry’s heart is in extending the opportunities she had to the next generation, especially the next girl who loved sport as much as a young Jen Fry did.

She made particular mention of what she saw as the main issues in girl and women’s sports.

“We need to focus on pay disparities in coaching staffs,” she said. “You have the men who are coaching sports getting paid well, and women who coach women’s sports aren’t” she said. “We also need to look at hiring. How many school have no women head coaches on their teams or have no women coaches at all. Those things are hugely problematic.”

Fry also had some important counsel for those who feel that a measure of exclusion should be allowed.

“We have to talk about how people have been socialized to look at trans folks as ‘others’, and how it’s this idea of inclusiveness means ‘you can be in my surroundings but you can’t really do anything,’” she said. “I see so many comments, ‘I support ‘them’ but I don’t want them playing with my daughter’. It’s this idea that people don’t want to acknowledge that their comments are transphobic.”

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