Another USA 7’s event is done and dusted, with some thrilling matches and plenty of games going to overtime. There were increased crowd numbers in spite of the cooler temperatures and at least from my random interactions with students and others on and off campus, the profile and exposure of rugby is definitely increasing as a result. I couldn’t count the number of people that I heard say, “I was watching rugby this past weekend……”
While Oklahoma didn’t get the results at the LVI that they might have been looking for they had a great time and took in plenty of the IRB 7’s action. Texas had a great LVI showing, going 5-1 and taking 3rd place overall. That should provide a great confidence boost leading into the ARC season and of course for the CRC 7’s in June. Texas A&M took on defending National Champions BYU and came away with a credible 44-5 loss, a definite improvement on their previous outings against LSU and ASU.
The ARC teams are gearing up for the season openers this Saturday with Sam Houston hosting Texas Tech, and Baylor hosting Oklahoma; with the former match being the featured ARC game of the week on Monday Night Rugby. While all of the teams have been working hard in preparation, several teams ran into some ugly surprises when submitting their USA Rugby Collegiate Eligibility paperwork to their university registrar. This is the first season in which the new eligibility rules take effect, the most significant being that collegiate rugby players only have 5 years of collegiate rugby eligibility from the date of their high school graduation. Players that competed in collegiate rugby competitions last year are eligible for a grandfather clause to finish out their previous eligibility of 5 years from the date they first enrolled in college. However, anyone that took time off to work, care for a family member, attended a school without a rugby team, went on a religious mission, or served in the Armed Services; before attending or returning to college, found out that they lost all of those years of eligibility.
While this is a sad state of affairs for the affected individual players, it also has a potentially dramatic effect on the teams that are competing, particularly those that already started with a small player roster and/or those schools that tend to enroll a higher proportion of “non-traditional” students. As mentioned previously, several of the ARC teams have been directly impacted and I can only imagine what will happen in a conference like the Utah Collegiate Rugby Conference, in which most if not all teams are likely to have a significant number of players that have or will complete a religious mission.
Similarly, schools like Texas State (SWC) have been heavily impacted due to attracting a large number of military veterans, so much so that a new men’s club has emerged as a result of their inability to play collegiate rugby. Of course proponents of the new eligibility rules will claim that this result is exactly what should happen – “the ineligible players can always play men’s club rugby as we are not denying them the opportunity to play rugby”. However, Texas State is fortunate that they are near large population centers (Austin and San Antonio), which allows the new men’s club to draw from the local community, not to mention nearby military bases and associated industries. Many of the universities across the country, particularly the land grant colleges, are located in isolated regions without immediate access to a men’s club, or men’s clubs to compete against. As an example, a student at Texas A&M would have to make a ~3hr round trip to the Woodlands Men’s club twice a week for practice, along with every match being “away”, even when a Woodlands home fixture. There are not that many students that have the time or financial resources to make that work and there are plenty of colleges that are even more isolated geographically, particularly with respect to the current senior rugby footprint, which is shrinking if anything.
Regardless, even the ability to play rugby elsewhere is missing the point. They are missing part of their collegiate experience, which is to play rugby with their mates and thus to be fully integrated into college life. Given that we have a GI Bill whose sole purpose is to provide a pathway for returning military veterans to obtain a college education and integrate into a “normal” life, it seems asinine to deny them the opportunity to be part of the greatest team sport on the planet, not to mention an insulting slap in the face following their service to the country. With shocking statistics emerging of non-combat deaths and associated PTSD issues, surely we can use rugby as one small vehicle and outlet to help these brave men and women, whether each individual needs it or not. I can not imagine that the pitch to the National Guard to return as a major sponsor of USA College Rugby is going to be well received given the change in eligibility rules that has a direct negative impact on those that serve and sacrifice so much on our behalf. How exactly do you sell that?
So the obvious question is, why were the changes to the eligibility rules made? Depending on which fence you are sitting, there are 3 primary drivers. 1. Reducing the number of waiver requests. 2. Reducing the risk of injury to collegiate rugby players. 3. Ensuring an even competitive platform. I will attempt to address all three through my personal experiences as a member of the USA Rugby Collegiate Eligibility Committee and as a coach of Texas A&M Rugby.
Firstly, let me state that the members of the eligibility committee worked very hard, in good faith and all have their hearts in the right place, being highly dedicated to collegiate rugby and as a committee we worked very well together in a respectful manner. Everyone had their own opinions which were listened to and taken into consideration before a final decision was made. We were certainly able to agree to disagree and hopefully for the most part made sound decisions in the student’s and game’s best interests. So why change anything? It was a lot of work, and worse than that, most of the work was spent on a vanishingly small number of cases. Instances that took multiple submissions and queries of documents and a paper trail that was out of an organized crime movie. Students that attended multiple schools, some with or without existing rugby teams, often not maintaining a 2.0 Grade Point Average, enduring all sorts of medical and personal situations and yet requesting (demanding?) that they be given the opportunity for 1 year or 1 more year of collegiate rugby. In many cases and after much detective work they were in fact eligible for the extra year under the previous guidelines, even though it left a bad taste in the mouth to approve some of the requests, so much so that some votes were possibly cast to deny on principle, at which point we realized that something needed to change.
Not that it should really matter and this is not a reflection of the relative importance of the rugby team or competition, but most of the problematic waiver request cases were coming from the lower divisions of collegiate rugby and from teams that had not historically competed in regional or national playoffs. Related to issue #3, if competitive balance is an issue did these eligibility decisions really have an impact? If you were losing to that team possibly yes, if not, probably no. Case in point, at the most recent DI-A collegiate rugby meeting held in Houston in June, 2012; the vast majority of the teams present agreed that the eligibility rule changes did not need to be made for that competition and that the teams did not have any major issues with their competitors. This is also borne out by the eligibility committee work in that with the exception of BYU due to a relatively high number of students taking on religious missions, the DI-A clubs of that iteration of the competition were rarely submitting waiver requests. That being said, those waiver requests were easy – high achieving students, single school, 2yr clean break for religious mission with associated certified letter from church – rubber stamp and move on. Similarly for most of the military service waivers, single school or two schools for pre- and post-service, military service document, done.
Proponents of the changes claim that the number of student athletes affected is very small and is a low percentage of the total collegiate rugby athletes. If that is the case then we can throw #1 out the window because by definition the number of waiver requests should also be very small. I did not personally agree with the changes being proposed for collegiate eligibility, but as with the other dissenting members of the committee, agreed to allow the PROPOSED changes to move forward and be distributed to the wider collegiate rugby community for discussion and feedback. No-one on the committee wanted to force these down from above yet to our surprise the next thing we knew the changes were being approved up the pipeline and became law. I for one will happily re-volunteer to serve on the eligibility committee if the changes are revoked or modified to exclude the journeyman students described above, and allow our veterans, religious missionaries, and other “non-traditional students” the opportunity to play collegiate rugby for a reasonable period of time. It’s not like most of the collegiate rugby clubs around the country are choosing which students to award scholarships to, or cutting players from the squad; we need more participation, not less. Regardless, if being “varsity” is the goal, there are plenty of examples of varsity athletes in several sports, that are competing well beyond 5 years from their high school graduation.
Rational #2 is player safety. Texas A&M has played BYU at least once every 2 years over the last decade. At no time in any of those matches have I felt that any of our players were in physical danger or that the playing conditions were unsafe. I don’t have specific statistics at hand but we have not had a significant number of injuries occur as a result of playing these matches, save for some bruised ego’s at times. In contrast, most of the severe injuries suffered by our players over the years have occurred in 2nd side matches, or in games against inexperienced opponents that could not scrummage safely, did not utilize a safe tackling technique, or were not aware that you can’t tackle someone that has jumped up to catch a kickoff. None of those events have occurred in our matches against BYU. We have also played many matches against local men’s clubs over the years and have not experienced any particular issues or injury risks. Conversely, over the years we have had occasion to cut or refuse to select a player or two who simply could not physically prepare or protect themselves for, or in contact. They were not prepared or able to play rugby safely. The bottom line is that if you don’t think you can safely put your team out to play BYU or a men’s club, then you have not sufficiently prepared your players to safely play the game of rugby and they should not be competing, period. You should be able to scrummage safely even when going backwards, a small player should be able to tackle a bigger player, or take the ball into contact and recycle it and themselves. That being said, no-one is suggesting that you have to play BYU or a men’s club, each team should build a schedule that works the best for their player’s development and experience of the game. This year for example, Texas A&M choose to play an all collegiate schedule as the best fit for marketing the game to their supporters and administrators on campus.
Rationale #3 is competitive balance. BYU is really good, we have never beaten them. Some years we have competed for long periods of the game, in others we were totally overmatched. However, our players look forward to the challenge and experience and always raise their level of play as a result; that is kind of the point of playing the game. It is an honor and privilege to play against one of the best teams in the country and we are grateful that they continue to honor our requests to do so, I am certain our players get more out of the games than theirs. There is not a player from Texas A&M that won’t remember playing against Kimball Kjar, or Salesi Sika, or Ryan Roundy, to name but a few. Every athlete with even a modicum of competitive spirit should want to test themselves and play against the best.
Texas A&M lost to a BYU squad containing 3 USA Rugby Collegiate ineligible players by 44-5. Does taking out those three players change the scoreline? Possibly, but it is likely the ultimate result would have been the same and the players would have been less for missing the experience of playing against their best. Texas A&M lost to a USA Rugby Collegiate eligible Arkansas State team 70-7. Don’t get me started on the foreigners argument; this country was built on the backs and minds of foreigners, as are many of the varsity sports teams around the country outside of football; which also misses the point that some of the best ASU players are from TEXAS! Cal have won innumerable national championships with “traditional american students”. The competitive balance argument doesn’t fly, in large part because there are so many schools with an equally large number of different competitive advantages in financial support, coaching, alumni support, recruiting, school support, facilities, admissions, prominence on campus, community support, etc. It is highly un-American to legislate against success when we should be celebrating all of these advances and achievements.
The collegiate rugby scene is currently fragmented and may become more so before all is said and done, but that should not be seen as a negative. America is framed by individual determination and individual state’s rights; there is no reason that individual collegiate rugby conferences and groups of conferences can not forge a path that works for their particular situation, while also furthering USA Rugby and the collegiate game. To the Mid-West and North-East, I hear you loud and clear, play for a Fall 15’s National Championship, or whatever else you want to call it; I can’t wait to watch it and hope it is successful. Varsity Cup? Bring it on and I only wish we could afford to compete in it. Multiple regional and national 7’s championships and tournaments? If you can find the funding and get it on TV, why not?
So what if the ARC decided to change it’s eligibility rules for next season to allow all of these student athletes the opportunity to play collegiate rugby? What happens then? USA Rugby deems the conference participants unworthy of a place at the table for national playoffs? My personal opinion is that if winning a national championship is the only way a team can define itself, then we are a pretty elitist sport where there can be only 1 successful team each year, which seems a little sad and underserving.
Soapbox. Off. Luckily no-one reads this or at least will read to the end so we can continue the status quo. For those that care, I am a supporter of USA Rugby and want a strong and successful national body. I am confident that my volunteer service and support of USA Rugby activities bears that out. However, I did not support the eligibility changes in the first place and now that the effects are coming home to roost at a local level, am now more adamant that it was a bad idea, with possibly good intentions, but a bad idea all the same.