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Looking Ahead to a Leaner and Meaner Rugby Season

By Kerri Heffernan

Many of us in the women’s rugby community are following the ongoing story about the elimination of the Glendale Merlins women’s teams (WPL and D1). It’s still unclear if the Glendale Women will truly be a casualty of budget cuts but even the potential loss of one of the premier women’s teams in the country is sobering.

Glendale is shocking, but many of us have been watching the growing number of college sports being quietly eliminated in the wake of the financial loss associated with COVID-19. In the past 3 weeks, over 90 varsity sport teams have been eliminated, with 78 teams of those teams in Divisions II, III and NAIA. It should also be noted that 44 of these teams were from three schools that closed at least in part because of financial fallout from the pandemic. Most of the Division I teams cut — 14 men's, 4 women's — are from schools in the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic Conference (AAC), Conference USA (C-USA), Mid-American Conference (MAC), Mountain West Conference (MW), and Sun Belt Conference (Sun Belt). But other conferences have announced recently that they’ll be making significant cuts to athletics as well (

Brown University, which plays in the Ivy League, is on the list of schools cutting teams due to COVID-19 financial losses, however the story of eliminating sports at Brown is complex. The University administration has been wrestling for years with the cost of financing 38 varsity sports. Many of Brown’s women’s teams were added in the late 1980’s when Brown lost a notable Title IX case. In a scramble to comply with the judge’s order to increase sport opportunities for women, Brown added a number of teams that appealed to a small segment of the population (skiing, squash, golf, fencing, equestrian). Financing 38 sports is costly and a growing chorus felt it a poor use of university resources. Moreover, many believed the athletic department was stretched too thin and the result was a culture of mediocrity, with too few Ivy Championships and NCAA tournament appearances to show for the investment.

On the day Brown made the announcement that it was cutting sports, I held my breath. Shortly after, I got a text from Kathy Flores, the coach of Brown women’s rugby, which said women's rugby was not one of the sports eliminated. Kathy and I talked about why rugby was spared; her sense was that the roster size (35) had contributed to keeping Brown Title IX compliant and therefore keeping women’s rugby safe. Additionally, the women’s rugby team has a large number of women of color on the team.

Kathy and I talked about the benefits of rugby, a list endorsed by Katie Wurst, the head coach at Queens University:

  • Is a relatively low cost sport

  • Adds large numbers of female athletes to the department

  • AD’s can double count players in 15’s and 7’s

  • Programs can become competitive relatively fast

  • Women’s teams tend to have a high academic index

  • Increases the number of women of color in the athletic department

  • Increases the overall numbers of tuition paying students (at many small schools athletes represent a significant percentage of the incoming first year class)

Photo Credit: Jackie Finlan / The Rugby Breakdown
Photo Credit: Jackie Finlan / The Rugby Breakdown

It’s too early to say how many more sports will be eliminated, but more budget cuts are coming as universities are sure to lose millions this summer with the shuttering of lucrative summer camps and academic sessions. Thankfully, NCAA schools are bound by NCAA requirements to maintain a certain number of teams based on the size of a school’s athletic department. “While the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools are required to sponsor 16 teams, the 128 Football Championship Subdivision schools and schools that don’t play football are required to sponsor only 14 teams. Any elimination of teams would likely have a bigger impact on men’s sports than their female counterparts because of Title IX requirements stipulating that a certain percentage of a school’s scholarships are allocated to women. It could also have broad implications for the sports landscape given that college athletics serves as a feeder program for many U.S. Olympics teams.” (Bolch, April 23, 2020, LA Times, Cutting college sports programs is a possibility amid economic downturn)

Yet all athletic departments are likely to begin cost saving measures this fall and those cuts will fall hardest on non-revenue sports like rugby. The cuts are likely to eliminate or curtail support staff, assistant coaches, videographers, equipment, travel, and food budgets, amenities for which many rugby teams already had to fight. Some rosters will be greatly reduced as seasons are shortened and travel limited. Some conferences are already planning cost saving measures, like eliminating league championships (champions will be crowned based on overall wins). Women’s sports are not more at risk, but it’s critical that coaches and players stay diligent as events unfold over the next few months and years. As former rugby player and noted Title IX attorney Janet Judge offers, “Title IX is a federal law that still applies. It’s not suspended because there are financial challenges for the institutions.” (Beard, May 28, 2020, Title IX major factor for colleges looking at sports cuts)

While University administrators know they must find ways to recoup revenue lost to the pandemic, they are still part of a billion dollar problem for women, measured by academic and athletic scholarships. Recognizing that women already have limited opportunity to participate in sports at many institutions, Champion Women has engaged in a race to connect with all D I, II, III athletic directors and conference commissioners to remind them of their obligations under Title IX as they address the cuts they will have to make as a result of COVID-19. Here is an excerpt from Champion Women's initial communication, with an example of the letters and charts mentioned referenced attached in the documents below.

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national emergency, schools have begun cutting sports, including women’s sports. Champion Women and the California Women’s Law Center have performed extensive calculations from the Equity in Athletics website for both this year and prior years. The attached letters are a call for you, as NCAA Conference Commissioners, to reverse this trend. 48 years after Title IX was passed, women have waited long enough. As you can see from the chart below, even without COVID-19, women are being denied thousands of opportunities to participate, and a quarter of a billion athletic scholarship dollars annually, just because they are women.” (Champion Women)

Champion Women sent versions of the following letters to conference commissioners:

All coaches will face leaner, meaner times in the coming years and as such it’s important to recognize each other as allies and support networks. WRCRA will continue to work with our members and partners like Champion Women to identify creative solutions to new challenges and to advocate for equity. We encourage members to take to Facebook and Twitter to let us know the impact of financial cuts to your club or school so that, together, we can be vigilant and protect girls and women’s rugby.

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