All The News That's Fit: The Ongoing Struggle of Women’s Rugby for Coverage


Rugby Magazine Masthead

Between September 15 and October 7th, 2020, excitement and intense competition characterized women’s basketball as the WNBA hosted its playoffs. Yet, when feminist sports blogger Tori Burnstein analyzed the coverage of the WNBA in six prominent newspapers-- USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and New York Times, she found that its postseason did not receive the attention that it deserved. [1] The WNBA only comprised 3.10% of the sports coverage in these papers during its playoffs. Throughout this same period, the NBA received 13.41% of their coverage, the NFL 28.11%, the MLB 20.14%, and college football 12.9%. [2] The neglect of these newspapers of the WNBA reflects the larger trend of the press ignoring women’s athletics.


Women’s rugby is no stranger to this phenomenon, with editor-in-chief of The Rugby Breakdown Jackie Finlan calling the coverage of the sport in the popular press “virtually non-existent.” [3] The failure of the media to report on women’s rugby disregards the triumphs of female athletes and delegitimizes their place in the sporting world.


The earliest editions of Rugby Magazine lacked coverage of women’s rugby. Founded by rugby player and sports businessman John Prusmack in 1975, this privately-owned U.S. publication chronicled national and international rugby matches as well as rugby’s major stars. While the writers for the earliest issues of this magazine detailed the rise of men’s rugby in the United States, they rarely mentioned women’s rugby, often covering the sport in just a paragraph or two in their tournament roundups. [4] The few longer stories about women that these writers published debated the seriousness of women in sports. For instance, Dennis MacLaughlin penned an article titled “Woman’s [sic] Rugby: Fashion, Fad, or Real?” which questioned the practicality of women playing rugby. [5] Although a few women managed to secure a small section of the magazine to cover their own matches in 1978, this space was not enough. Women thus published letters to the editor in an effort to denounce their sexist exclusion from Rugby.


Writing about the lack of representation of women in Rugby, rugby player Betsy Ogburn wondered, “Why is there such a total disregard for women in this sport? Is it the same as all sports in the past-- male dominated, therefore women are on the low list of priorities?” [6] She attributed the lack of coverage of women’s rugby to sexism in the sporting world, noting that popular publications tended to treat men’s sports as more important than women’s. With this imbalance of coverage in mind, Ogburn offered to write for Rugby in order to ensure that her sport got the attention it deserved. [7] Ogburn understood that representation in the press would help readers see women’s rugby as legitimate. However, the editors rejected Ogburn’s criticism, evidence of their sexism. They insulted Ogburn in their response to her request to write for Rugby, proclaiming, “Your help is certainly appreciated…We ask that all articles be intelligent, informative, and as well-researched as possible.” [8] Any writer would assume these basic requirements, so stating them attacked Ogburn’s intelligence. The editors likely would not have spoken to a male writer in this way.


First Rugby Magazine Cover Featuring Women - Volume 14, No. 6 - September 1988

The editors only agreed to let Ogburn write in the first place because they blamed women for the lack of coverage of women’s rugby, as shown in their response to a rugby player’s desire to cancel her subscription which declared, “Coverage of women’s rugby is up to the initiative of women’s players and the administration. We publish everything we receive.” [9] They portrayed women’s rugby as a women’s issue that men should not bother to write about. In encouraging men to stick to their sport, the editors framed women as the drivers of their own lack of representation, overlooking gender power dynamics and distancing Rugby from its sexism.


Outrage over the publication of an objectifying photo further exposed Rugby’s sexism. In January 1983, Rugby published a scandalous photo of a woman named Erika Roe, who ran onto the pitch of an England-Australia match naked and disrupted the action. Jennie Redner, a frequent contributor to Rugby, was infuriated by the magazine’s coverage of the incident and mused, “How do you expect to maintain credibility with men and women when you publish this kind of image?” [10] Redner saw the publication of the photo as sexist and unacceptable. Holly M. Little, another contributor, echoed Redner’s critique, calling the publication of the image “vulgar, in poor taste, and totally inexcusable.” [11] She then attacked Rugby’s blame of women for their lack of representation in the magazine, writing, “I, as an occasional contributor, find it exceedingly difficult to get enthused about writing or rugby when the rest of your publication contradicts your so-called support of women’s rugby.” [12] Women could not expect fair coverage of their sport in a magazine that disrespected and dehumanized them.


The editors of Rugby refuted Little’s critique and continued to blame women. They first defended their publication of the photo, saying that the rugby world was so enamored with the incident that it would have been irresponsible to ignore it, even if it made women uncomfortable. [13] The editors then claimed that women were failing at their duty to cover their sport, but rejected Little’s explanation as to why. They retorted, “Please don’t insult my intelligence, though, by telling me that women rugby players aren’t writing accounts of their activities because of a tiny picture of a bare-breasted woman.” [14] The editors refused to take accountability for their actions and instead invalidated women’s concerns.


Rugby’s promotion of harmful gender stereotypes took this invalidation one step further, attacking women’s characters. When an article condemned women’s rugby players who drank at a 1981 national championship match, rugby player Jane Pulling fired back, “I do agree that the behavior was not in the best taste, but I think it would have been equally inappropriate regardless of the gender of the participants.” [15] Pulling rejected the belief that women needed to remain pure while men could get away with any behavior they desired. Her claim challenged gender double standards that placed unnecessary expectations of morality on women.

The editors of Rugby Magazine did not listen to Pulling and continued to uphold gender stereotypes. When women challenged these problematic representations, male readers came to Rugby’s defense. For example, in his letter to the editor, H.F. Langenberg declared about women drinking, “I personally put you ladies on a higher and different pedestal than perhaps you yourselves do,” spinning sexism as respect for women. [16] Flanagan then emphasized perceived gender differences between men and women, saying that women were not cut out for sports like rugby and instead belonged in domestic roles. He declared, “I believe women are better at cooking dinner than men are.” [17] His outlook invalidated women’s athletic abilities and relegated them to the household. In giving Flanagan’s harmful perspective a platform, Rugby promoted the belief that women did not belong in sports.


Beantown-Belmont Shores - Rugby Magazine July 6, 1981 - Photo Credit: John Prusmack

As time went on, Rugby slowly improved its coverage and treatment of women, largely thanks to an increase in women in leadership positions on the magazine’s staff. Finlan reminisced about her time with the magazine from 2005 to 2014 with nostalgia, saying, “I got my start in rugby journalism with Rugby Magazine, so it's very special to me. The final two managing editors were women (Katy Rank Lev and then me), as hired by Ed Hagerty. And although I've had plenty of demeaning experiences in the professional rugby world, those instances never originated from my direct co-workers (namely Hagerty, Alex Goff and Pat Clifton). Those first few years when the magazine was my main focus, it was the best time of my life.” [18] Other publications improved their coverage of women’s rugby as well. Finlan cites Scrum Queens, Scrumhalf Connection, Goff Rugby Report, and her own The Rugby Breakdown as examples of publications currently doing an excellent job covering women’s rugby. [19]


Overall, the editors of the earliest editions of Rugby Magazine largely excluded women from their pieces and rejected criticisms from women in letters to the editor, evidence of their sexism. Sexism persists in sports media today, as the lack of coverage of the WNBA finals evidences, making organizations like the United States Women’s Rugby Foundation (USWRF) essential. It is critical for organizations like the USWRF to amplify the traditionally muted voices of female athletes, celebrate women’s athletic feats, and confront sexism in the sporting world. When organizations like the USWRF center women’s voices and acknowledge their stories, they pressure the media to alter their sexists narratives and strive toward better coverage. As for what the ideal coverage of women’s rugby could look like, Finlan muses, “For me, the clarity and accessibility of information are the most important tenets of ideal coverage. Girls and women's rugby in the U.S. is still in a state where it must increase its numbers, and that growth will affect all things, including the proliferation of quality news coverage with national outlets. In the meantime, ‘ideal coverage’ must take care of the rugby newcomer, who is coming to the sport through diverse channels and needs a resource to understand where they fit into this unfamiliar world.” [20]


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Hanna Stasiuk graduated from Vassar College this past spring with her degree in history and a minor in educational studies. Her historical interests include sports history, Irish history, and twentieth-century American women's history. Hanna hails from Ipswich, MA and plans to earn her secondary school teaching certificate this year. Her goal is to teach high-school history.


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[1] Lindsay Gibbs and Tori Burnstein, “Thrilling WNBA playoffs only given 3% of sports spotlight,” Power Plays, October 22, 2020.

[2] Ibid

[3] Jackie Finlan (editor of The Rugby Breakdown), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, November 16, 2020.

[4 ]“Rugby Round Up,” Rugby Magazine, June, 1975.

[5] Dennis MacLaughlin, “Woman’s Rugby: Fashion, Fad, or Real?” Rugby Magazine, November, 1976.

[6] Betsy Ogdun, “Women’s Rugby,” Rugby Magazine, July 12, 1982.

[7] Ibid

[8] “Rugby Replies,” Rugby Magazine, July 12, 1982.

[9] “Rugby Replies.” Rugby Magazine, September 23, 1983.

[10] Jennie Redner and Holly M. Little. “Streaker.” Rugby Magazine, March 15, 1982.

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] “Rugby Replies.” Rugby Magazine, March 15, 1982.

[14] Ibid

[15] Jane Pulling, “Sexist Remark?” Rugby Magazine, September 30, 1981.

[16] H.F. Langenberg, “Women and Beer,” Rugby Magazine, April 16, 1984.

[17] Ibid

[18] Jackie Finlan (editor of The Rugby Breakdown), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, November 16, 2020.

[19 ] Jackie Finlan (editor of The Rugby Breakdown), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, November 16, 2020.

[20] Jackie Finlan (editor of The Rugby Breakdown), interviewed by author, e-mail message to author, November 16, 2020.

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© 2019 US Women's Rugby Foundation. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2019 U.S. Women's Rugby Foundation. All Rights Reserved.