Women’s rugby makes its push for NCAA status this weekend

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Buzz is building for the first sanctioned NCAA women’s rugby team. Perhaps, buzz is the wrong word. Instead, it’s more like a low hum. USA Today wrote a brief story on the match-up between Eastern Illinois University and West Chester (Penn.) University, a game that might attract more than 1,000 fans to Charleston, Ill.

EIU coach Frank Graziano says that several local newspapers have also called, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and some Chicago area newspapers. I will be covering the game for ESPN.com. I may be more excited than most, having spent two years covering the team for a project I hoped would result in a book on these women pioneers. I am still writing and working and hoping.

Women’s rugby is on the NCAA’s emerging sports list, along with squash and handball and a few other sports. Typically, a sport must build enough programs (usually 30) to have a national championship within 10 years. Right now, the sport has about four more years, meaning the sport could be denied if progress stalls. Only two other teams are considered NCAA right now — Maine’s Bowdoin College and Southern Vermont College.

Clearly, many people are hoping this game on Saturday will generate enough media coverage to jumpstart interest among fans and athletic directors. Rugby is an exciting sport, but, like soccer, is considered more European than American even though American football owes its development to rugby.

There are many reasons rugby could become the next big college sport, but there are just as many reasons the sport could cease to exist beyond club status after a few years. Rugby has the speed of track, the power of football and the grace of soccer. Fans easily get hooked once they watch a few games. Plus, rugby could help offset football’s overwhelming number of scholarships. Title IX justifiably requires that women must receive an equal share of athletic opportunities. Rugby could help universities in this regard, since the sport could generate as many as 30 scholarships, more than any other sport beside football. On the other hand, athletic directors usually have few dollars to spend on a new sport, especially one with a somewhat tarnished reputation.

At Eastern, the sport has a stellar reputation, thanks in part to its coach, Graziano, a former USA Rugby coordinator and national coach who see no reason rugby should be treated any differently than any other sport.

Many club rugby teams chafe at the thought of going varsity, believing the NCAA will change too many rules and take control over ‘their’ sport. Two players at North Carolina went apoplectic a few years ago, yelling when I asked whether NCAA status would improve their program. One player claimed UNC was just as good as anybody moments after being routed, 86-7, by EIU.

“The only possible advantage is you will have medical and get things funded,” the player said. “But it will strip the fun out of the game. We already have the best of both worlds. We only have to practice two times a week. We do this because we love to do it and want to win. I think it would become a chore having to practice every day. That we show up twice a week when we don’t have to builds your heart.”

Another player jumped in: “I don’t like the Americanized varsity idea. I could hear their coach scolding their players. I didn’t get the sense their coach cares about their players. Some of what he said was downright mean. The pressure isn’t there with us now. The money isn’t there. You can’t be kicked off our team. I like that there’s no pressure.”

Clearly, these players never heard UNC’s basketball coaches (or any other professional coaches) during a game or practice. Pat Summitt is not exactly a nun either, yet her players respect her — and her players learn and win like no other women’s basketball program.

Several coaches and players hate that NCAA rules would prohibit post-game socials after games, a staple in the rugby community. Last week, Purdue’s coach was not interested in going NCAA, saying she would love the funding. But, she said, she did not want to have to worry about under-age drinking after games.

Say what you will about the NCAA, but no organization does a better job organizing, marketing and promoting athletics in this country. The NCAA’s support could turn rugby into the next great college sport. Varsity teams would grow in high school campuses across the country, feeding college teams in Illinois, Florida, Nebraska and elsewhere.

But it all starts, really, with Saturday afternoon’s game in Charleston. The winner, really, is not as important to those playing. The real rewards may come years later when these young women can point back and remind people they played in this historic game. Hopefully, they won’t have to remind their grand kids that rugby is a sport.

You might want to do some research on your own campus, asking players and athletic directors how they feel about elevating women’s rugby to varsity status. Attend a practice, observe how they work out and ask the tougher follow-up questions. There might be a nice story in it for you.

I posted information on ways to cover rugby last spring, which you can find by clicking here.

photo/Brian Poulter

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4 Responses to “Women’s rugby makes its push for NCAA status this weekend”

  1. hcmce Says:

    Going NCAA would be a huge mistake, as the organization only cares about revenue sports and will sap away any revenue that rugby might provide at its national championships. Going NCAA would remove any of the unique charm that rugby maintains compared with other college sports. Students play because they want to, not to get a scholarship or a ticket to of acceptance to a competitive college. Also,if rugby is to go NCAA, why discriminate against the men? Shouldn’t they have the same opportunities as the women? Football has nothing to do with it, since rugby isn’t football.

  2. NCAA PROUD Says:

    WHAT A LAUGH!

    The NCAA is legitimacy anyway you slice it. Are you insisting that the 300,000 student-athletes are competing at the intercollegiate level are all doing it for the money? Are you forgetting that these student-athletes go on to become lawyers, doctors and get a degree? Oh that’s right, Michael Jordan got to the NBA because he CHOSE to go to practice and all the other big named stars who are products of the NCAA. BE REAL.

    Your comment about equality for men and women in the NCAA has to do with NCAA football, not women’s sports. The revenue sports make the money but SPEND more than they make putting 85% of the athletic departments in this country at a deficit. If you want to point a finger as to why they are not adding men’s rugby the same time as women’s rugby, take a look at the ENTIRE NCAA….NO ONE IS ADDING MEN’S sports until there is a gender balance. PERIOD.

    Do not blame women’s rugby for the gender equity imbalance in the NCAA. Do you your homework before writing your PRO CLUB RUGBY response. Think outside box for once and see that no one is watching club rugby on ESPN because it is not aired, just like club soccer and frisbee. DEAL WITH IT.

    Also, try checking USA Rugby’s page and the articles in the NCAA section on Why men’s rugby isn’t solicited by USA Rugby for NCAA status. The information is out there, you just happen to NOT pay attention.

    P.S Rugby was the predecessor to football. Try and visit the NCAA Hall and see the flying wedge or do you even know what that is?

  3. Clay Says:

    Actually, my comments about equality for men and women in the NCAA has nothing to do with NCAA football but with both men’s and women’s sports, and they have nothing to do with the legitimacy of the NCAA. No doubt that the NCAA is the national governing body for varsity athletics. However, many “lesser priority” men’s sports might do better to leave the NCAA because of its professed emphasis on revenue sports, which support the athletic departments of only a small percentage of NCAA schools. (Rutgers is still chasing the dream of large revenues by paying more for its coach than the state of NJ pays any other state employee – even the governor.) As for gender balance, right now there 1000 more women’s teams in the NCAA than men’s teams. Nevertheless, no one is adding men’s sports because of the quota imposed by Title IX’s policies, not because there isn’t the interest in men to play the game. So, why spoil rugby – either men’s or women’s – by going NCAA?

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Clay,
    The gender imbalance issue is relationship to how many females are enrolled according to what percentage of the student-athletes are female. There may in fact be interest for males to play rugby, there may also be in fact interest for males to play tennis, wrestle, swim and all the OTHER sports.

    There very well could be 1000 more women’s teams (or whatever number you pulled from somewhere) but the fact 10 women’s tennis teams with an average of 8 players equals one football team in the NCAA with roster count cannot be ignored. Quantity must be created to make up for the outrageous inequity football provides. The issue is not the numbers of teams, it’s the numbers of participants and the QUALITY of opportunity. Ten women’s tennis teams may have 1 or 2 scholarship each, while football has all but the last ten on the roster on fulls. Don’t give me numbers.

    You’re right, look how soccer got ruined by having all NCAA athletes on their roster, GOLD MEDALS, WHEATIES BOX, marketing and heroes for little girls all over the US. Same goes for other teams like the national softball team. We dominate in those sports. The entire rosters are made up of NCAA athletes, not club athletes, it’s not a knock, just a fact.

    How would expanding opportunity and creating one next to club sports be “ruining” the game. I love listening to males talk about women’s opportunity in the NCAA as if they know what’s best for the female gender in sports.

    Which “lesser priority” sports are talking about? You’re right NCAA swimmers and track runners should leave the NCAA and go run for a club, that would certainly broaden the horizons and exposure to a higher level like the olympics. Going to practice when you feel like it, makes champions. Where do we get our best olympians in those sports? Ding ding ding, the NCAA.

    Oh wait, you’re rallying for the men in most of your comments and trying to lump the two together as having equal potential to fail if it goes NCAA. You are providing quite the laugh.

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