“A Broad and Toxic Epidemic”: how women’s rugby is tackling gender inequity in sports

Thursday 11th, June 2015 / 06:50 Written by
“A Broad and Toxic Epidemic”: how women’s rugby is tackling gender inequity in sports

photo © K.M. Klemencic

You may not know a lot about rugby right now, but you will.

Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the US. The Sevens version of the game – in which two teams of seven, rather than the usual fifteen, play two seven-minute halves on a standard rugby pitch – will make its debut in the Rio Olympics in 2016. Sevens rugby is played at a breakneck pace, with big hits and deft runs from some of the most exciting athletes you’ve never heard of. And best of all, in both types of rugby the men’s and women’s games are played with the exact same rules – same ball, same pitch, same pace, same hits.

Yet, despite the fact that the women’s game and the men’s game are currently both equally obscure, both filled with the kind of action that make American audiences sit up and cheer, both growing at similar paces in terms of in-person attendance at the collegiate level, and both poised to break out with next year’s Olympics, only one is getting the full weight of NBC’s marketing and airtime at the most recent Collegiate Rugby Championships (CRC) Sevens event.

You don’t need me to tell you which one it was.

You already know.

Collegiate ruggers, their coaches, and their families are livid, and rightfully so. Becky Carlson, head coach for the Division I women’s rugby program at Quinnipiac University, has been gathering stories and signatures – as of writing, just over 5000 – from athletes and allies. In a piece promoting the petition to seek an apology and a promise to feature equal representation in future coverage of the event, Carlson relates a story from a CRC trainer:

On Saturday, the women had to share one locker room, while the guys had three (not having to share with their opponent). On Sunday, the women were not allowed any locker rooms, and the men had all four. This meant our women were unable to shower before our 7-hour bus ride home.

You don’t need to have played rugby to know that athletes who have just spent all day sweating, and sometimes bleeding, into their gear aren’t gonna smell great afterwards.

Yes, even athletes who are also women.

It seems that, despite stories like this from the CRC, where women were relegated to occasional scraps, playing outside the stadium on practice fields, forcing their fans to use Port-a-Potties and sit on bleachers if they want to watch the women play – it was worse in years past.

Carlson says that since starting the petition, she’s heard from athletes, coaches, and trainers who have attended the CRC event before. “This is the sad thing to say but the the treatment was better this year than in previous years,” she said. “If it’s been like this prior to the petition, why haven’t we heard anything?”

Part of it may be that women’s rugby, and women’s sports more generally, is increasingly in the news – and treated like it has a right to be in the news. Carlson, herself a former multisport NCAA student-athlete, says that some of her impetus for starting and publicizing the petition was this increasing awareness from the general public of inequitable treatment of women’s sports across the board. “I belong to and work with the (NCAA) Alliance of Women Coaches,” Carlson says, “and it’s the same song and dance for a variety of women’s leaders and their sports where we all come together and trade dialogue on topics of unequal pay, resources that our sports are not receiving in comparison to our male counterparts or the even respect that our players are not receiving.” The petition, she says, is in many ways about more than just the CRCs event. “Realistically, if you take rugby out of that and put any other sport, it could absolutely apply. That was the tone the movement was derived from. [These attitudes are a] broad and toxic epidemic.”

The petition mentions issues of player comfort and privacy – providing locker rooms, showering facilities, and so on – but also concerns regarding fan equity that goes deeper than TV coverage. Players, coaches, parents, and fans are genuinely invested in nurturing the game’s growth beyond the traditional fan. “If you’re someone who has never heard of rugby and wants to go, you’ve presented to the brand new rugby fan and her daughter that yes, women play outside the stadium,” Carlson points out. “So when you sign up, and you play youth rugby, that whole theory of the girls will play second and the girls will play on a different field, that whole theory is only reinforced. They will expect it, so why should they fight it at those [lower] levels? They have the image right in front of them of what the highest level of treatment is – and it’s not very high, in this case.”

Fighting the image of women’s rugby – and, for that matter, women’s sports – as deserving of that lesser treatment at even the highest level is a formidable battle. It is one which has been going on since well before Carlson was working to bring women’s rugby to the NCAA in an official capacity as the Emerging Sports Program Manager at USA Rugby, the sport’s national governing body. The battleground goes well beyond the pitches and locker rooms in Philadelphia at the CRC 7s – indeed, the primary battleground these days seems to be the media. Even as stories around women’s rugby emerge that highlight the athletes’ toughness, speed, and physicality – like that of Georgia Page, the Australian center for Lindenwood University, whose try-saving tackle was caught on video and went viral – the media still pushes stories that hold women’s rugby in contempt.

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The Scotland women’s team deserves better than this.

Herald Scotland, the largest Scottish newspaper, published a piece titled “Glasgow Warriors coach Shade Munro demoted to national women’s team role” – which is in itself a questionable editorial decision – which discusses Munro’s move to coach the Scottish Women’s National Team using primarily quotes from former Scotland flanker Cammy Mather and former Glasgow Warriors prop Muff Scobie. Mather asserts that “To put [Munro] in charge of the women’s team would be an enormous demotion,” while Scobie takes it one step further: “To offer him a job coaching women is such a waste of talent.”

Even pieces which refrain from outright contempt of the women’s game still often fail to take female ruggers seriously as athletes, even as they praise them. After Page’s broken-nose tackle made its way to the far corners of the sports-loving internet, her facebook page was trawled for bikini pictures by creepy lad websites and Barstool Sports, which is of course a creepy lad website masquerading as a sports website. And to some, even the positive, non-creepy press Page has gotten has a tinge of the problematic. JR Thorpe, in an article for Bustle, explained that the “flabbergasted” response that goes along with calling Page “War Goddess” and “Indestructible” comes off as condescending when contrasted with the coverage men’s rugby tends to get. “A male rugby player isn’t lauded as ‘indestructible’ by a sports show simply because he got his nose dramatically broken; that’s seen as part of the job,” Thorpe notes. “The Rugby Six Nations competition earlier this year involved a huge swathe of injuries, some horrific, all reported as simply matter-of-course by the media. “

Carlson puts it another way: “‘Breaking hearts with a broken nose’ is never something they’d say for the men’s game.”

Quite simply – in playing rugby, I have had teammates who look like Page, who are traditionally feminine and, yes, drop-dead gorgeous. (You know who you are.) I’ve also had teammates who don’t choose to present themselves as traditionally feminine, though who are no less gorgeous for that. (You also know who you are.) I’ve had still other teammates who couldn’t give less of a crap about whether they’re gorgeous. And here’s the thing – they’re all tough as nails.

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Which one of these girls could rip your nose off and feed it to you? (All of them.)

Each and every one of us is, as Thorpe puts it, “prepared to keep playing when she’s got a nose half an inch away from its proper place.” And all of them, whether traditionally feminine or not, are fantastic teammates and fantastic athletes who are tougher than they are ever given credit for. Page herself took the chance to tell Buzzfeed that what she did wasn’t unique – she believes that girls are all tough enough to play rugby.

And yes, there are sometimes stories about male ruggers like Mather and Scobie, who talk about women’s rugby as if it’s hot garbage, or the men’s club at my own alma mater, the London School of Economics, who last year were disbanded for handing out an unbelievably offensive leaflet steeped in “lad culture” in which, among many other offensive statements, our women’s rugby team were referred to as “beast-like women” who only played sport to try to catch a rugby playing lad of their very own.

Increasingly, though, our rugby brothers are stepping up.

Carlson notes that the petition she started in the wake of the CRC 7s has garnered support from more than just women’s rugby players. “I’m excited about the solidarity I’ve seen recently online, with people, men and women, coming together to support something like this.” The petition, she says, is “only about fairness” and that male rugby players are, in general, fully on board.

The comments left on the petition, and in #HERRUGBYCOUNTS, the Twitter hashtag Carlson started to draw awareness to the inequality in coverage and setup of the CRCs, reflect this assertion. Men who played rugby in their youth are beginning to see rugby as an option for their daughters, not just their sons, and want them to get as much out of the experience as they did. “As a male rugby player and father of a little girl,” wrote William Halbert on Carlson’s petition, “I want her to have every opportunity to enjoy the game as much as I have – in every way.”

Carlson’s piece promoting the petition acknowledges that it’s not only the female athletes who have been hurt by the situation at the CRC 7s, and demands an apology on behalf of the men who play the game:

Our rugby brothers… recognize the absence of fairness. You sent the male athletes a clear message that not only is their participation more important, but also enhanced the stereotype that every other American sport has fallen prey to in the media by setting the classic stage for future disparity between men and women in our sport. Our brothers on the pitch are our allies and this is not the messaging they support either.

Carlson believes that with education and patience, all of our rugby brothers can become allies in the fight for women’s rugby – even those like Mather and Scobie. “We try to educate our male athletes and our male allies on this, and many of them will say, ‘Wow, I didn’t even think about that,’ because it’s part of their everyday language. It’s an education. We can’t do any of this without male allies. And the great thing about the petition is that is reflecting that.”

As rugby fans look ahead to the men’s Rugby World Cup in September, the Rio Olympics in 2016, and an upcoming NCAA expansion welcoming more collegiate rugby programs into the fold, it remains to be seen whether the work Carlson and other outspoken advocates for the women’s game will accomplish what they’re setting out to do. But the response to the major stories in women’s rugby over the past week have given athletes, coaches, and fans a lot of reason to hope.

“With the Olympics, and with all the hype surrounding the women’s game, with the NCAA expansion, I think for the women’s side of the game there is incredible opportunity,” Carlson says.

People are aware of and excited for the women’s game like never before, and they are increasingly willing to demand coverage. Stephen Barnes, in a comment on Carlson’s petition, sums up this growing attitude: “As a player, friend, and fan, I say, ‘Her rugby counts.’”

Eliza Eaton-Stern
Eliza is co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of The Other Half. She did her undergrad at the University of St. Andrews, where she once played air guitar with Prince William, and her Masters at the London School of Economics, where she wrote her dissertation on the history of military veterans in the Paralympic Movement. Despite the amount of time spent in Great Britain, she remains staunchly Midwestern in her feelings about how much cheese should accompany any given meal (lots). She lives in Colorado with her Hockey Hating Husband, where she plays rugby and yells at the TV about a wide variety of sports, including hockey, football, and other football.

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