For the first time in over ten years, high school rugby season is getting underway without me. I doubt I’ll be missed by anyone but my players, and – after the hell I’ve put them through – even that might be iffy. Over the past several seasons, I have largely become a non-entity in Rugby Illinois (formerly the Illinois Youth Rugby Association). I voluntarily removed myself from any involvement at the state level long ago. Now, before anyone can turn an accusatory finger at me and cry hypocrite, I understand that this makes me a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. Unfortunately, I championed the solution for years and was met with nothing but resistance and derision. There are only so many times a man can pound his head against a wall before he realizes that it’s probably smarter to just take a Tylenol and walk away.
I started coaching rugby the same year I started teaching. Prior to that, I spent four years playing on a nationally competitive collegiate side followed by a brief stint with a small men’s club. I already had three years’ experience as a high school football coach, and I volunteered my time with the rugby club for two simple reasons: I love working with teenagers and I love rugby. The head coach quickly became one of my closest friends. He and I used to spend hours talking about the future of the sport in Illinois. Enthusiasm and awareness were both on the rise, new youth clubs were springing up every year, and the quality of competition was steadily increasing. In ten years, we thought we’d be a legitimate presence in our school, with the support of the athletic department, access to school resources, and a legitimate IHSA tournament to determine the state champion.
But, ten years later, very little has changed. Although there are more youth clubs and more players than ever before in Illinois, the public profile of the sport is still minimal and its reputation largely negative. Worse, despite the outward appearance of change and growth, disorganization and dysfunction still rule at the state level.
Although my hiatus from coaching was meant to be temporary, I have a difficult time believing I’ll return to the rugby pitch any time soon. What follows are the reasons why.
The Question of Legitimacy
For years, there’s been an ongoing push at the state level to “legitimize” rugby in Illinois. But there’s only one way to really do that: Become an Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sport. Unfortunately, reactions to any mention of the IHSA range from indifference at best to outright defiance at worst. There is an inexplicable insistence at both the state and national levels that rugby stands alone. That rugby is, should be, and always will be unique in American sport. This, however, defies reason. Simply put, you cannot gain legitimacy as an outlier.
Blind Adherence to Overseas Models of Player Development
Ask any American what three sports the U.S. is best at, and you’ll invariably get three answers: Football, Basketball, and Baseball. They are recognized and endorsed by state scholastic organizations nationwide, and they follow similar models of team and player development at the elementary school, high school, and collegiate levels. Common sense dictates that if you want to develop both the quantity and quality of athletes enjoyed by the big three, you would be best served following their blueprint.
In my experience, one of the main reasons why both the state organization and so many of the individual coaches are so vehemently opposed to seeking IHSA membership is because they fear losing their autonomy. In other words, they might have to answer to somebody and be held to enforced standards of professional conduct. So instead, we have State Based Rugby Organizations (or whatever the hell USA Rugby is calling them these days), community clubs, and fledgling “local academies” for player development. The end result of this is a shortage of resources compounded by insufficient community awareness and parent support. Worse, most players still do not learn about the sport until they are in late high school or even in college. Meanwhile, boys’ and girls’ La Crosse have been classified as Emerging Sports in the IHSA with over 100 combined teams and – in my area at least – huge enrollment numbers.
And you can guess what sport those numbers are being drawn away from.
A Shortage of Professionalism
One of my long standing laments about coaching rugby in Illinois is the dearth of coaches who are also educators. Does a good coach necessarily have to be a teacher? Of course not. On that same token, can an educator be a bad coach? Absolutely. All things being equal, however, I’d much rather entrust my own daughters to a trained professional who spends his or her days immersed in children and who thus understands and is responsive to their unique needs and desires. More importantly, I want my children in the hands of coaches who are willing to put their players’ well-being before their own. Sadly, I see far too little of this on the sidelines of high school rugby matches. I’ve seen coaches who scream, coaches who swear, and coaches who don’t know how to win and lose with class. Not to mention the many coaches I’ve encountered whose primary interest in their youth club is using it as a farm system for their men’s club and who don’t understand the myriad distinctions between being a player-coach among grown men and being a coach in a youth program. In my experience, the bad coaches greatly outnumber the good ones, and they comprise the vocal majority standing in the path of true legitimacy for the sport.
Negative Public Perception
Over the past decade, USA Rugby has worked diligently to raise the public profile of the sport in this country. In November, they managed to sell out Soldier Field in Chicago for a nationally televised Eagles/All-Blacks match. I was there. It nearly brought tears to my eyes to see 60,000+ screaming fans gathered on the lakefront for international rugby, even if most of them were wearing black and white. Just five years earlier, I attended a match between the U.S. and Wales at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. There were fewer people in attendance that day than we get for our high school football games. I can neither deny nor criticize the explosion in overall awareness between 2009 and 2014.
Awareness, however, is not enough.
What I saw in Chicago last November was all at once everything that is so right and everything that is so very wrong with rugby in America. The Eagles acquitted themselves valiantly, playing some of the best rugby I’ve ever seen from a U.S. side. The crowd was a testament to the natural diversity of the sport, and it was raucous until the final whistle. Men, women, and children of all shapes, sizes, and colors were gathered together to celebrate a mutual and non-partisan love of the world’s greatest sport. They cheered. They sang. And – in one of the great traditions of the sport – they became friends. For many young spectators, it was a brilliant introduction to the simple beauty of the rugby life.
It’s a shame that it had to include a 68-point loss.
Far more distressing than the final score were the ludicrous displays of buffoonery and hooliganism that have become inextricably linked with rugby in this country: Fans wearing nothing but tattered match shorts and tank tops (on a 40-degree day on the lakefront!), public displays of competitive drinking, vulgar and sometimes downright disturbing call-and-response songs and chants. After the match, I even saw one young woman who was so drunk she’d pissed her pants and had to be carried out of the stadium by two men that I hope like hell were trustworthy friends. In short, there were far too many people treating the event like the post-match parties of their college days. And this in what was meant to be a family-friendly environment. Needless to say, I was glad that my children weren’t there.
In short, little has changed in the fifteen years since I graduated from college. Little will until we start taking the necessary steps to truly legitimize rugby in the eyes of America. In Illinois, in my community especially, it’s a tough sell. Too many parents have too many memories of the misbehavior of their college teams and local men’s clubs. Unfortunately, scenes like the ones described above do nothing to dispel those notions about what it means to play rugby. When you’re asking parents to overlook their personal experiences and trust that the rugby community is changing, you do yourself and the sport in general a grave disservice by having neither licensed credentials to demonstrate your qualifications nor any cogent affiliation with the school system. Most parents will assume you’re a ruffian and that you’re going to indoctrinate their children into a life of drunken hooliganism. Sadly, they might be right.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: As much as I love teaching, I love coaching, and I love rugby, my days on the pitch are most likely over. The only way I can see myself going back is if rugby becomes an Illinois High School Association sport with a school-sponsored team in my district. When that day arrives, I’ll know that we’re finally done with coaches scrambling to put together their own schedules, clubs desperately seeking patches of grass to host matches, and the endless chains of vulgar, derisive, and inflammatory reply-all emails that pass for the decision-making process in this state. When that day arrives, I’ll know that I will never again have to sit through an organizational meeting where one coach is asking for donations of used balls because his club is broke while another belittles the notion of school funding and support, where a coach motions to change the state by-laws to allow his high school athletes to play on his men’s team in the summer, or where I have to justify my refusal to take my youth team to any tournament sponsored by a beer vendor. When that day arrives, I’ll know that I’ll never again have to defend my involvement in the sport to a colleague or justify its safety and efficacy to a parent.
Because when that day arrives, I’ll know that we’re finally legitimate.
As always, thanks for reading.
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