fbpx

What the world needs, rugby can supply

Rugby might be able to save the world, but first, the rugby world needs to save itself. Throughout every facet of life, COVID has proven to be a great societal etch-a-sketch, erasing what we once knew as normal to reveal a blank canvas.

Loonies over Headliners 28–14 in the 2021 Premier Rugby Sevens Inaugural Championship Women’s Final match at AutoZone Park on October 9, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee. © 2021 Alex Ho ( aho_211009_7447_03 )

Rugby was no exception and it was that blank canvas that made space for an idea as novel as Premier Rugby Sevens. Nothing like it — a domestic professional sevens league featuring men’s and women’s teams with equal pay — had ever been attempted before founder and CEO Owen Scannell turned his quarantine dream into a reality in October of 2021.

PR7s broke ground with the Inaugural Championship at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tennessee, featuring 10 teams of the league’s own making on national television. This year, it will expand to hold its first-ever season including multiple tournaments.

PR7s is an example of the upside of COVID’s impact on American rugby. The downside has been an accelerated recession of players, coaches and clubs in the grassroots. Rugby participation in the United States enjoyed some boom years at the start of the 21st century, but membership with the national governing body had been on a steady year-over-year decline before 2020.

Looking back from the two-year mark since the pandemic put the world on pause, it’s evident COVID dropkicked that trend into overdrive, except in the few places it hasn’t.

Loonies over Headliners 28–14 in the 2021 Premier Rugby Sevens Inaugural Championship Women’s Final match at AutoZone Park on October 9, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee. © 2021 Alex Ho ( aho_211009_7689_03 )

 

You can categorize most rugby clubs in America into two types: those backed or attached to another institution or those on their own. Teams that receive funding, access, recognition, oversight and sundry other resources from non-rugby-specific entities, like say Lindenwood University, St. James High School, or the New York Athletic Club, are generally better insulated from the negative impacts of COVID than those forced to harvest their own resources from seed to salad.

Unfortunately, though, institution-less clubs make up the overwhelming majority of American rugby. And the bulk of them are usually held up by one or two tent-pole volunteers, leaving them totally uninsulated against the effects of COVID.

Many of those clubs and organizations have already folded. In my neck of the woods, girls high school rugby has retracted to its starting blocks. From the time I started playing in 2006 to graduating college in 2009, there were as many as nine different senior men’s clubs in and around Kansas City. Now there are two. Many of the clubs who haven’t folded are desperately trying to escape fate, but numbers are dwindling.

One of the few categories where participation numbers are actually up, at least anecdotally, is at some university campuses, even where there are relatively minimal resources trickling down from the university.

Higher education, like rugby, was already experiencing a decline in enrollment, but with COVID’s quarantines and lockdowns making campus life less enticing, colleges struggled even harder to attract and retain students. Those that did pack up for school spent months on campus in the middle of the pandemic. No parties. Little opportunity to build bonds.

This created opportunity for some club programs, many of whom were allowed to gather, train and play some semblance of intrasquad rugby under protocols while most clubs were shut down entirely. In many cases, numbers grew, attracting throngs of newcomers to the sport.

What largely drove those kids to try something new is rugby’s most potent weapon, which also happens to be a human need in short supply these days, as universally highlighted during the pandemic — community. When college kids suddenly couldn’t meet strangers at a party, in class or at a bar, slapping on a mask and playing some touch rugby became significantly more attractive.

Like rugby’s participation and higher education’s enrollment, community has been on the decline in America for decades. Or at least according to Dr. Robert Putnam, the Harvard professor, political scientist and author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids.

Experts over Loggerheads in overtime (19–19, 1–0 OT conversions) in the 2021 Premier Rugby Sevens Inaugural Championship Men’s Final match at AutoZone Park on October 9, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee. © 2021 Alex Ho ( aho_211009_7992_03 )

In Bowling Alone, published in 2000, he chronicles the rise and fall of American community. In Our Kids, published in 2015, he largely examines the consequences. Putnam’s timeline helps explain American rugby’s big renaissance from which today’s clubs and institutions were largely sprung to life, and the technological and societal changes that are now proving challenging.

Having floundered for nearly half a century as the nation fell in love with gridiron football, rugby exploded in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s on college campuses, when Americans were more civically and socially engaged than at any time in history, according to Putnam. The oldest rugby clubs in most of America’s cities have their origins in these two decades.

From there, community and the social capital it creates, goes on a consistent decline arriving at the polarized state we all live in today. In other words, when we used to socialize in-person regularly at places like church, sports, scouts, PTA, the Optimist Club and at the theater, we got along better. Our democracy functioned better. Life was better.

Experts over Loggerheads in overtime (19–19, 1–0 OT conversions) in the 2021 Premier Rugby Sevens Inaugural Championship Men’s Final match at AutoZone Park on October 9, 2021 in Memphis, Tennessee. © 2021 Alex Ho ( aho_211009_8079_03 )

Sure, we argued, but instead of trying to scorch one another’s Earth, we saved each other a seat at the next game or meeting. Kind of like after a rugby match, where having just traded violent blows, opponents customarily and dutifully exchange suds and slaps on the back instead of insults.

COVID exposed community as a human need by denying us all of it, and Putnam’s work outlines how we as a society lost sight of that over the last half decade. The bad news is rugby clubs, like most grassroots social organizations, are the casualties and they’re mounting.

The good news is rugby, done right, delivers community like nothing else. It won’t be easy, and it will require coaches to stop selling rugby as a means to an end — a ‘state’ or ‘national’ championship, a scholarship or a shorter path to the pros or Olympics — and start creating communities worth joining, using rugby as the shared bond.

What the world needs, rugby can supply.

By Pat Clifton
PR7s Insider

 

0
    0
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop