It’s been over a month now since the University of Delaware Rugby Club was placed on a 5-year probation, the result of a college party run amuck. The Club has maintained that it had nothing to do with the party as an organization, and, according to a team member, “… it was caused by individuals acting on their own.” (Tyler Kingkade, The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/27/im-shmacked-udel-rugby-suspension_n_4002881.html) The Club appealed the decision, and the appeal was denied. The fall semester at Delaware rolls on, the student rugby players remaining continue going to class, and the rest of the rugby world gets to play on Saturdays. So where does that leave the state of Rugby in the U.S.?
I should tell you I believe the Delaware Rugby Club officers, and hopefully they’re able to play rugby sooner than 2018. I can’t help but wonder if the disciplinary decision was made so severe … because it was rugby. Is there a perception issue? To me, these few players responsible for the demise of their entire team are no different from other athletes who break the rules. Generally, it seems that those players are dealt with on an individual basis by the NCAA or other governing body; very rarely is the “death penalty” invoked for an entire team. That being said, what’s happened has provided rugby fans and players in the U.S. an opportunity to talk about the big picture, and what it means to be a rugby player today.
I’m a rugby fan because I’m the parent of two rugby players. It’s how I learned about the sport. So, my initial reaction to the U of D debacle was not a good one. I wrote to a friend, “I’m talking to people, trying to tell them what a great sport this is… and then I see an article like this. I know the majority of our players are not making these bad decisions, but it doesn’t make it an easier sell for a mom talking to other moms.” And rest assured, the overwhelming majority of rugby people I’ve met are outstanding individuals, and I count myself lucky to know them and be included in the rugby community.
I’m a typical parent. When my son was younger, I drove him to practice; I’m still driving my younger two kids to practices. I sign off on all the forms; I take the kids to get their physicals. I make sure their clothes are washed, and that Gatorade is in the bag. As every parent knows, it’s a fairly tough juggling act at times. When the kids wanted to play rugby, it was ME that had to be convinced to let them be involved in a sport I’d first heard about in a song at college (and not in a good way). Let’s be honest here – rugby players, at least back in the day, had a certain reputation.
Here’s a quick example of what we rugby fans face: A few years ago, a couple of high school ruggers were helping set up for our first Rugby Indiana auction (they were super helpful and super nice). One of them told me a story about a woman he met while he was working his job at a pizza place. Through the course of conversation as she was waiting for her pizza, he told her he played rugby. She assumed he was in college, and voiced her assumption that he must party as a rugby player. He quickly set her straight. I told this group of boys, “If you don’t want people to have that assumption of rugby players, then you need to remember that and act appropriately. You represent not just yourself, but your club and your school.” They were solemn for a moment, looked at me, and one spoke for the group and said, “You’re right.”
Now it’s 2013, and this once foreign sport is making headway not only in this family, but also in schools and communities across the country. We’re not where soccer is yet, but it’s my hope that we get there. Where contact sports is concerned, we’re a football country. It’s hard enough to find a field suitable for a pitch sometimes or convince coaches of other sports that rugby is a really good mutually beneficial sport, let alone trying to convince people and parents that rugby is a sport worthy of being placed on their calendar, one that belongs to gentlemen and ladies.
So, along comes this incident at Delaware. And I’m not naive enough to say that it doesn’t happen anywhere else. It does. Some incidents are well-known, and others are not. But here’s the deal – and this applies to all rugby players, no matter the age: YOU ARE THE FACE OF RUGBY. YOU represent not only yourself, but your club, your city or school, and the sport of rugby. When you engage in conduct unbecoming that of a rugger, whether you like it or not, you represent all of rugby and you plant a seed in the head of prospective rugby moms that maybe this sport IS really like that rugby song you learned back in college. Even if the conduct is an outlier, it has an exponential effect.
The fact of the matter is that growing the sport of rugby requires a few things, but mostly it involves increasing the number of players. It’s a snowball effect – increase the number of middle school players, and you’ll have more high school players; increase the number of high school players, and your college and men’s/women’s team numbers will increase. A bigger pool of players will help with our national teams. New players are picked up along the way, for sure, but to build a solid foundation it helps to have players who’ve had rugby as part of their culture growing up.
I see a lot of folks really wanting the U.S. to have a competitive team in the Rugby World Cup, and I’m right there with you. I want the Eagles to be more than competitive; I want them to win! Who doesn’t?? AND I want the U.S. to HOST the Rugby World Cup.
But we don’t get there if we don’t have players. And we don’t get there if we don’t have parents who AGREE TO LET THEIR KIDS PLAY. Support our coaches who attempt to instill in their teams a culture of respect and responsibility; and support our players who do the right thing. Be professional in your relationships with your teammates, coaches, fans, etc. Be the gentlemen and ladies this sport was made for.
You can still have fun. But do it knowing who you represent, and knowing what the end goal is: more rugby players, more teams, and, eventually, more Gold. 🙂