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Member Spotlight: Alex McCulloch

An interview with Alex McCulloch, President and Head Coach of Panther City Rugby, Fort Worth, Texas

Many of us have circuitous routes to rugby coaching but Alex McCulloch’s journey is certainly one of the more interesting. Alex is in his 12th year of teaching in the Health Science & Technology (Health Occupations) Program at Trimble Technical High School in Fort Worth. He has led outreach activities to bring youth rugby to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Fort Worth, city community centers, and select schools in the Fort Worth After School Program. In 2012, he was recognized by Rugby Texas for his volunteer efforts to further the sport in Texas. He has also served as Chair for the Youth Competitions Committee for Rugby Texas. Alex came to our attention two years ago with his fierce advocacy for girls high school rugby in the Fort Worth Independent School District (ISD), a cluster of public schools that serves a large population of low income and minority families. Since 2015, Alex has been helping female students advocate for the adoption of rugby as a girls’ varsity sport in Fort Worth. While not yet adopted, he still persists.

What progress have you made in the efforts to get rugby as a varsity sport in Fort Worth ISD?

In January, 2016, Fort Worth ISD was notified that there was significant interest among female students to play rugby as a varsity sport. In May of 2016, a handful of girls sent a letter (commonly called a “Demand Letter”) to the school district’s Title IX Coordinator and upper leadership, detailing how the district was out-of-compliance with Title IX and of the girls’ interest in seeing rugby added as a varsity sport. Frustrated with a lack of movement and support, a number of girls made their interests and issues known during two Board of Trustees meetings (April 2018, October 2019). In January 2019, the Fort Worth ISD distributed a district-wide HS Sports Interest Survey. After it was strongly pointed out to the Title IX Coordinator that their January distribution failed to attain a sufficient response, the survey was redistributed in September with greater expectations placed on principals to have students complete it. While there are still issues with the survey’s validity, responses overwhelmingly highlight the fact that the athletic interests of female students are not being accommodated.

At the request of the school district’s legal department, a packet documenting female student interest at seven schools was submitted on Friday, March 6, 2020. The packet also included information highlighting how the school district has continued to fail to meet any part of the Office of Civil Rights three-part test to determine compliance with Title IX: a provision of equitable opportunities; a recent history of adding sports; and/or, a full accommodation of athletic interests. Information and photos were also included to illustrate an improper bias towards getting access to athletic facilities as well as to demonstrate that there is sufficient outdoor space to accommodate girls’ rugby as fall varsity sport.

The end of March is when the operating budget for the next academic year is generally created based on requests from school district divisions, departments and school campus budget requests. In late-April or early-May, we will reassess the situation with the request to determine next steps. Given that our student population is low-income (roughly 85% qualify for Title I assistance), we have tried to stay within the school district to resolve the Title IX issues. However, the last time the girls spoke at a Trustees’ meeting, they made clear that even poor people have their limits to being put off before they seek legal assistance.

What’s the 'dream' for Fort Worth ISD girls’ rugby?

The dream for girls’ rugby in Fort Worth ISD is to become a fall varsity sport offered throughout the school district. Of the school district’s 22 high schools, fifteen (15) offer female varsity sports. If notice was given right now that rugby was offered and supported as a varsity sport, at least seven HS campuses would have enough females to play 7’s. Many campuses would have enough to play 15’s. The key to a large female turnout is offering rugby as a fall semester sport. Currently, eight female varsity sports are held during the spring semester whereas only three are held during the fall semester.

What’s the state of youth rugby in Texas, particularly girls rugby?

Youth rugby is on the rise particularly in the Austin and Houston metropolitan areas which both have MLR teams: Austin Elite and Houston SaberCats. An MLR team has been announced for the Dallas area to start play in the 2021 season which should add to the growth of rugby in Texas. At the HS (u19) level there is growth but as we see new teams created we also see teams fold or blend with a neighboring club.

Growing girls rugby in Texas has been particularly difficult. First, the state is geographically large. Travel to competitions becomes expensive fast. This hinders and sometimes exhausts resources for teams trying to serve low-income and/or remote areas such as El Paso, Dallas (inner city), Fort Worth (inner city), Laredo, and Pharr. Second, there aren’t enough teams in a region or metropolitan area (except Houston and perhaps Dallas) to keep most of the competitions “local.” And, third, the club season is held in the spring which means girls rugby competes with up to 8 other HS varsity sports for players. As a result, most clubs can only field a 7s team, if a team at all. A few clubs are coming around to the idea of a fall season to improve female participation. Unfortunately, not enough clubs are ready for such a shift. One theory is that most clubs are started with a HS (u19) boys’ team in mind. Therefore, as the largest sector, SRO operations largely pivot around the boys’ teams.

Who supports you in this work? Who do you rely upon for support, advice, strategies?

For efforts within Fort Worth ISD, I have been fortunate to find faculty and a few administrators on the various HS campuses willing to become liaisons, disseminating information and helping coordinate activities. Of course, it takes a lot of networking, pleading and informing to recruit prospective supports. And, I try to do most of the administrative duties myself. In the beginning we were fortunate to have players from a local university club team take on coaching duties at different HS campuses. Unfortunately, the college team had a change in coaching resulting in players becoming unavailable. Recently, a few former adult players stepped up to coach. This allowed four Fort Worth ISD high schools to field teams for a short intra-district league.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the Founder and CEO of Champion Women, has been very gracious in her support. Her legal advice has really helped us navigate our issues, Title IX, and communications with the school district. The Board of the Women’s Rugby Coaches and Referee Association (WRCRA) has also been a strong supporter. We are grateful to them for understanding needs and sending a letter of support to our school district. I am particularly appreciative of the learning and national networking opportunities I am afforded through their annual conferences.

What are the 'levers' you can pull to move this forward? What are the biggest obstacles?

At this point the biggest lever we can pull is filing a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights and/or filing a Title IX lawsuit. When we started our push to get rugby as a girls’ varsity sport, we didn’t know that a group could file a complaint with the OCR. Yes, we were very green (novice) getting into this undertaking. While a complaint with the OCR is a valid option, we have come to understand that filing a lawsuit is a quicker route to attaining our goal. We have seen lawsuits expedite water polo to varsity status in suburban districts around the state.

Our great hope is that the relatively new Board of Trustees, in which five of nine members are now women, will see the discrepancies and act appropriately. Our hope is underscored by the fact that one of the Trustees is a women’s advocacy attorney.

Our biggest obstacle is the leadership in the athletic departments who are apparently still reluctant to update facility use policies. While telling football coaches they will have to share the field with girls rugby may be a major hurdle, it is the baseball coaches that are creating the greatest obstacle. Our district high schools are limited on outdoor space. Unless football and rugby are willing to alternate before and after school practice times, the baseball outfield is the best option for gaining additional practice space. At the moment, the baseball coaches have been successful in arguing that grass won’t be able to grow if the outfield is used for girls’ rugby and/or football practices. Of course, their argument is without documented proof.

You danced professionally - can you talk about your dance background and the connection between dance and rugby?

I hold an MFA in Ballet Performance from Texas Christian University. My start in ballet began in the first grade at the recommendation of the family physician to help with coordination and learning issues. It was not something I readily endorsed and had to endure frequent taunting from peers throughout most of my primary and middle school years. Luckily, by the time I started participating in junior high school sports (football, track & field) I was good at them and taller than most. A few athletic friends would step up on my behalf. However, when I decided to focus on dance instead of sports in the ninth grade, I became ostracized.

Fortunately, I was accepted into the Interlochen Arts Academy on full scholarship to complete high school. From there I went on to study at the Académie de Danse Classique Princess Grace, Monte Carlo. When I returned to the United States I attended the University of Utah, earning two bachelor degrees. While there, I became interested in kinesiology and went on to complete the university’s sports medicine program. This led to the attainment of national certification and state licensure as an athletic trainer. Having received my undergraduate degrees, I returned to dance as a graduate assistant at Texas Christian University. My studies of interest included gender roles, racial representation, and inclusion of those with disabilities. In the realm of dance performance, I initiated workshops in contact improvisation which is a form of modern dance started in the 1960’s where dynamic movement sequences develop based on reactions to continuous physical contact with others. From TCU, I went on to dance professionally for a few years with the Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theatre) and Contemporary Dance Fort Worth.

While dancing with the Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet company I was asked by a member of the Fort Worth Rugby Club, who was dating a female colleague, if I would come to help with injuries as their athletic trainer during matches. While watching the matches, I recognized the similarities between rugby and the dance medium of contact improvisation. The combined multi-directional and multi-level agility required in rugby was aesthetically appealing to watch. I also appreciated the welcoming culture of the club and sport. No one cared that my background was in dance. They just cared that I could help them improve through my knowledge of sport medicine and movement. Within four years, the club became USA Rugby DII Men’s Club National Champions (2000). The next year, I became the President of the FW Rugby Club. Needless to say, I embraced and found a place in the sport of rugby where I could help open more athletic opportunities for minorities and females.

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