The Roadblock to College Rugby’s Success in the USA

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While the recent decision handed down by USA Rugby to allow graduate school eligibility for college players is certainly a big change, it does not open up or simplify the game enough to allow rugby to grow in the United States. Graduate school eligibility may keep a few more college players on the pitch, but the much more pressing issue is the structure of governing bodies, particularly at the college level.

The eligibility rules are too black and white for the multitude of special cases that college students these days present. Under the current rules, even with the new provisions, military veterans who serve their country for four years are not allowed to play college rugby for all four years after they return to school. The “seven year from high school graduation” rule excludes those who are forced to work through school at a different pace as well. For example, I was told I only had one year of eligibility left after transferring to the school I eventually graduated from under USA Rugby guidelines. Yet, upon transferring to that school, I was told that I still had four semesters of NCAA sport eligibility. The disconnect between these types of regulations are the reason that so many potential rugby athletes choose other sports to play in college, and are a direct reason why the sport is not growing as quickly as it could. Because I had to take time off from school to work and earn tuition money and take classes at a community college before going back to finish my degree, I was only allowed to play for one season. What’s worse is that even though I had been told by a number of governing bodies that I was cleared to play that season, upon reaching the South Championship tournament, I was informed I would have to sit out.

This brings up another problem with the structure of rugby in the United States. The school that I finished my college career with was under the jurisdiction of too many governing bodies. Our club reported to the school, the state rugby union, NSCRO, USA Rugby South and finally USA Rugby as a whole. I was told by the eligibility officials of NSCRO and the state rugby union that I was eligible to play for the entire season. When attending the USA Rugby South championships, I was forced to sit out because the USA Rugby official at the matches determined I was not eligible for the playoffs. I was then told that I could rejoin the team if we reached the next level of playoffs, when the jurisdiction of eligibility was returned to NSCRO.

What’s worse still for the sport is the “registration fees” and “dues” owed to each of these governing bodies by each club. College clubs often don’t receive a lot of funding for rugby, and so much of that budget is spent on setting up the team within each of these governing organizations that there is nothing left to travel and play matches against opponents outside the immediate area. It is also hard to raise individual team dues to pay for necessary items because the cost of CIPP registration continues to rise. Starting this year, our state governing union is requiring a certified touch judge and referee be officially registered with each club, or allowing a “buyout” of several hundred dollars paid to the union. For a few years, we prided ourselves on running a friendly, fun sevens tournament with a low entrance fee. Also starting this year, on top of paying the referees (which we already did), securing the venue (which we already did), and taking care of all other logistics associated with the tournament, our state union is requiring a “registration fee” to be approved for a Sevens tournament, which just means we will be paying several hundred dollars to have our tournament put on the calendar on the state union website.

The situations my own club have encountered are not unique. These are the same obstacles that block the progress of rugby across the country. Every small school without Division I type funding is affected in these ways. Every transfer student who had to take time off school to be able to pay their tuition bill is affected in these ways. Every military veteran who doesn’t get a full experience on the rugby pitch within the “seven year from high school graduation” time period is affected in these ways.

Until something is changed, both with the eligibility rules for college rugby, and the inundation of governing bodies, rugby will continue to be a second-class sport in the United States. At a time when the growth of rugby is faster than ever before, what the game needs is a unified voice from the top levels of administration, not mixed messages.