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We Make the Road While Walking: Building and Sustaining Racially Diverse Teams

by Kerri Heffernan

The 2020 WRCRA Conference takes place January 17-19, which is the same weekend that the nation will recognize and celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Atlanta is a particularly appropriate place to gather on this weekend and consider the vast contributions that women of color have made and continue to make to both women’s rugby and the nation at large. It is also an appropriate place to challenge ourselves to do better.

Overall, these are exciting times for women’s rugby. We seem to be having a collective ‘hopeful’ moment. Women’s rugby programs are growing at the youth, high school, collegiate and club levels. Administrative pathways are expanding, and women are making careers in coaching, refereeing and administration. Much of that growth and opportunity can be attributed to Title IX.

Title IX is now 47 years old, and although the legislation has had a profound effect on creating equitable opportunities for women, many inequities persist, particularly for women of color. In a New York Times article on gender, race and Title IX, William Rhoden writes, "Race is by far the most debilitating limitation of Title IX, yet you barely hear discussion of it. This reflects an old way of thinking about inequality, in which gender was the model." Rugby is no different from other sports in regard to the paltry hiring and promotion of women of color. The absence of women of color in rugby coaching and administrative roles is evident at every level, including the Women’s Premier League (WPL), Women’s National Team (WNT) and National Collegiate Athletic Association teams (NCAA). This is contrasted with a much larger number of women of color playing rugby.

There are currently 18 NCAA women’s rugby programs. The good news is that 12 of those programs have women as head coaches, yet the bad news is that only two of those head coaches are women of color. Equally troubling, in those 18 NCAA programs, only two assistant coaches are women of color. Although the public information is difficult to decipher, the numbers appear similar in the WPL where of the ten WPL teams, only two head coaches and one assistant coach are women of color. If we combine WPL, WNT and NCAA teams, the sum total of women of color in coaching positions is seven. Of those six women, two women hold multiple coaching positions (coaching a WPL team and coaching at the WNT level or college level). So, our report card on diversity hovers somewhere around a D-.

In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to be involved in the hiring processes for two NCAA rugby programs. In both cases, women of color were absent in the initial applicant pools. This seemed of little concern to university administrators, most of whom ran departments that had inclusive mission statements and full-time diversity officers yet built administrative and coaching staffs that were over 90% white. When pressed about the lack of diversity in the applicant pools, most offered, “we just need the best coach for the job.” The myth of the “best coach for the job” underscores long held beliefs that merit and diversity are somehow mutually exclusive, and that the unquestioned merit of white people is not directly tied to histories of racism and institutional exclusion. These beliefs stem from historical legacies of bias and continue to resonate in contemporary hiring practices across all fields. Data from across business and sport shows that at every level, “like hires like.” In other words when departments are overwhelmingly white, they tend to hire white.

We often place our faith for change in governing bodies like The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and USA Rugby (USAR). But the NCAA and USAR are membership organizations and, while they can exercise influence, they are unlikely to critique their members or ask them to change their practices. Moreover, these governing bodies tend to be overwhelmingly staffed by white males who may be enlightened but not particularly motivated to diversify leadership structures.

Many of us who are white believe that we have no power (we didn’t make the hire) and therefore bear no personal responsibility for diversifying programs. But I would argue that we do have power. Many of us who took up rugby did not intend to become so involved in the sport. When asked why we are so engaged, a common response is “my teammates are my sisters and we are like a family.” While that sense of connection stems in part from the intense physical and emotional demands of the sport, it is also evident in the ways we come to rely on one other for academic, job, health, social and spiritual guidance, during and beyond our playing years regardless of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. So, when we are in positions of influence, no matter how minor, it is incumbent upon us to question applicant pools and, if necessary, hold up the process until pools are appropriately diverse. If you are part of a coaching staff that is all white, question that norm and create a vision and timeline for change, encourage young women of color to pursue coaching, refereeing and administration and introduce them to women of color who are coaches, referees and administrators. Use your social networks for good. Mentor, sponsor, and promote women of color and learn from their example.

The 2020 WRCRA Conference panel “We Make the Road by Walking: Building and Sustaining Racially Diverse Teams,” is a no-brainer as women’s rugby has a long and complex history of wrestling with issues of inclusion. My hope is that by taking time to listen, discuss and reflect we can become more attuned to the ways women of color are marginalized and excluded, and, at the very least, know inequity when we see it and call bullshit. Hiring practices can only change when we demand change. This begins with building, connecting, expanding and leveraging our networks. Talk to one another, get involved, join organizations like WRCRA and understand that aspirations of inclusion, justice, fairness and equity begin at home.

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