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It's Not About the Weight Room

By Kerri Heffernan

When the news broke about the gross inequities between the Women’s NCAA Basketball Championships and the Men’s Championships many were outraged but the stories have only exposed what has been true since the tournaments inception, that the women are regarded as an amusing sideshow. The pictures circulating showed the women’s weight room with a small rack of dumbbells and some yoga mats, smaller swag bags for the women, and prepackaged meals for the women as opposed to a full buffet for the men. Articles also brought to light the fact that the women had less reliable COVID tests than the men and a smaller percentage of spectators allowed at their games. However, lost in those day-to-day indignities was the greatest disparity of all: compensation. While social media appropriately chastised the NCAA, it was only a handful of women’s coaches and Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post who actually talked about the real issue at play.

"March Madness and all that accompanies it is a billion-dollar enterprise. Conferences and teams in the men’s tournament get a share of that revenue. A team that makes it to the men’s Final Four could generate an additional $1.1 million payday for the conference every season until 2027. There is no revenue sharing for the women. A team could win the women’s title for years in a row, as UConn did from 2013 to 2016, and never see an additional penny. (Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2021).

When the stories of the weight room disparity broke in the mainstream media, the NCAA gave the expected “we’re sorry and we need to do better” line, not because they really are sorry but because they got caught. They got caught because they underestimated the reach of college women’s basketball as well as their allies in the WNBA, collegiate men’s basketball, and the NBA.

So, after all the attention from the press, the 64 teams in the women’s tournament now have an adequate weight room and Congress is asking the NCAA for an explanation. But the women still don’t have anything close to equity. All this has left me thinking, if high profile women’s sports like basketball and soccer can routinely be treated poorly, what chance does women’s rugby have?

1988 Women's National Team

Women’s rugby has always been a loosely organized entity. The first women played rugby in defiance of gender restrictions and embraced their rebellious identity. As USA Rugby wasn’t really interested in stewarding the game, early teams and players managed themselves. Early women’s organizing was good, even great at times. However, over time, the women’s game was brought into the USAR fold, first through the Women's Committee, but ultimately handing over critical decision-making to local and national organizations believing that they had our best interest at heart. Time and time again they’ve shown us they don’t.

Only we know what's in our best interest. All of us in the women’s rugby community must recognize our shared struggles and our shared interests. We must accept that the inequities visited upon a middle school girls team in Texas, a referee in Virginia, or the women’s national team are all related and impact us all.

There is no new dawn of enlightenment coming - equity for women in any field is an ongoing battle. If there is a lesson for women’s rugby in the women’s basketball debacle, it’s that no amount of success protects female athletes from discrimination. What protects us is developing our own spheres of power and influence. The ability to send up a bat signal and know that the community will react. Women’s rugby is 50 years old, we have access to generations of players, coaches and supporters, many of whom went on to professional lives with influence and power. We have the visibility of the Olympics and World Cups, a culture more accepting of contact sport for women, and have seen the growth of the sport at every level.

Photo Credit: Meredith Nelson - Mean Photography

"What we've learned, and what we continue to learn, is that there is no level of status -- and there's no accomplishment or power -- that will protect you from the clutches of inequity. One cannot simply outperform inequality or be excellent enough to escape discrimination of any kind." (Megan Rapinoe testimony before the House Oversight Committee 3/24/21).

The Women’s Rugby Coaches and Referees Association (WRCRA) is a membership organization committed to harnessing the power in the women’s rugby community. Our members include a broad spectrum of individuals committed to the women's game from across generations - lawyers, doctors, researchers, coaches, Hall of Fame players, corporate leaders, politicians, ranchers, artists, and parents - but we need 100’s more to join us. A show of strength from a large, vigilant, diverse membership is the best way to protect and advance women’s rugby. Together, we have influence, power and the ability to engage multiple networks.

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