Buzz is building for the first sanctioned NCAA women's rugby team. Perhaps, buzz is the wrong word. Instead, it's more like a low hum. USA Today wrote a brief story on the match-up between Eastern Illinois University and West Chester (Penn.) University, a game that might attract more than 1,000 fans to Charleston, Ill.
EIU coach Frank Graziano says that several local newspapers have also called, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and some Chicago area newspapers. I will be covering the game for ESPN.com. I may be more excited than most, having spent two years covering the team for a project I hoped would result in a book on these women pioneers. I am still writing and working and hoping.
Women's rugby is on the NCAA's emerging sports list, along with squash and handball and a few other sports. Typically, a sport must build enough programs (usually 30) to have a national championship within 10 years. Right now, the sport has about four more years, meaning the sport could be denied if progress stalls. Only two other teams are considered NCAA right now -- Maine's Bowdoin College and Southern Vermont College.
Clearly, many people are hoping this game on Saturday will generate enough media coverage to jumpstart interest among fans and athletic directors. Rugby is an exciting sport, but, like soccer, is considered more European than American even though American football owes its development to rugby.
There are many reasons rugby could become the next big college sport, but there are just as many reasons the sport could cease to exist beyond club status after a few years. Rugby has the speed of track, the power of football and the grace of soccer. Fans easily get hooked once they watch a few games. Plus, rugby could help offset football's overwhelming number of scholarships. Title IX justifiably requires that women must receive an equal share of athletic opportunities. Rugby could help universities in this regard, since the sport could generate as many as 30 scholarships, more than any other sport beside football. On the other hand, athletic directors usually have few dollars to spend on a new sport, especially one with a somewhat tarnished reputation.
At Eastern, the sport has a stellar reputation, thanks in part to its coach, Graziano, a former USA Rugby coordinator and national coach who see no reason rugby should be treated any differently than any other sport.
Many club rugby teams chafe at the thought of going varsity, believing the NCAA will change too many rules and take control over 'their' sport. Two players at North Carolina went apoplectic a few years ago, yelling when I asked whether NCAA status would improve their program. One player claimed UNC was just as good as anybody moments after being routed, 86-7, by EIU.
"The only possible advantage is you will have medical and get things funded," the player said. "But it will strip the fun out of the game. We already have the best of both worlds. We only have to practice two times a week. We do this because we love to do it and want to win. I think it would become a chore having to practice every day. That we show up twice a week when we don't have to builds your heart."
Another player jumped in: "I don't like the Americanized varsity idea. I could hear their coach scolding their players. I didn't get the sense their coach cares about their players. Some of what he said was downright mean. The pressure isn't there with us now. The money isn't there. You can't be kicked off our team. I like that there's no pressure."
Clearly, these players never heard UNC's basketball coaches (or any other professional coaches) during a game or practice. Pat Summitt is not exactly a nun either, yet her players respect her -- and her players learn and win like no other women's basketball program.
Several coaches and players hate that NCAA rules would prohibit post-game socials after games, a staple in the rugby community. Last week, Purdue's coach was not interested in going NCAA, saying she would love the funding. But, she said, she did not want to have to worry about under-age drinking after games.
Say what you will about the NCAA, but no organization does a better job organizing, marketing and promoting athletics in this country. The NCAA's support could turn rugby into the next great college sport. Varsity teams would grow in high school campuses across the country, feeding college teams in Illinois, Florida, Nebraska and elsewhere.
But it all starts, really, with Saturday afternoon's game in Charleston. The winner, really, is not as important to those playing. The real rewards may come years later when these young women can point back and remind people they played in this historic game. Hopefully, they won't have to remind their grand kids that rugby is a sport.
You might want to do some research on your own campus, asking players and athletic directors how they feel about elevating women's rugby to varsity status. Attend a practice, observe how they work out and ask the tougher follow-up questions. There might be a nice story in it for you.
I posted information on ways to cover rugby last spring, which you can find by clicking here.