The Cancer of the Alternative Sport
American rugby is a club, not a sport. For better or for worse, that’s all it is right now. While rugby struggles to take hold in the US, some of those who love the game most are holding it back.
Rugby guys are a dedicated bunch.
Coaches toil with no pay, players practice on grassless vacant lots, athletes pay their own travel costs, and selection to represent your country can mean having to quit your job. Old boys play their way into the hospital because their passion to play is stronger than their wrinkled bodies. Young athletes travel long road trips to play important matches in front of roaring crowds of zero.
Yet, with all this passion, we consider ourselves lucky to come away with one win in the World Cup. Why?
The answer at the tip of everyone’s lips is money. Rugby’s most pathetic pitch is greener than USA Rugby’s bank account. The Eagles are essentially a bunch of volunteers competing against well-paid professionals, and it shows on the field. It is easy to see the need for funds and while receiving financial support would solve many problems and open even more doors, it is not the real cause for America’s failure.
The real problem lies in the "alternative sport" culture fostered in clubs from coast-to-coast. A large majority of those who play rugby in the US love the culture more than the game. Countless write-ups in local papers and recruiting pitches tout the unique camaraderie and sportsmanship associated with rugby.
Fox telecasts are produced in a set made to look like a pub and post game parties are legendary to the point that most college students have been to one while never having attended a game. Rugby culture is truly an entity all its own, but pints in the pub have never equaled points on the board.
Nothing is wrong with a love for the lifestyle but it must be understood that as long as that is the focus and foundation of American rugby we will never win. For proof that culture, not money, is the issue at hand, one need look no further than last years brief Team Roc sponsorship.
Finally, after years of struggling in obscurity and poverty, some truly deep pockets were ready to empty in rugby’s direction. Here was a sponsorship from a company with not just millions at its disposal, but distribution and exposure as well! This was a record company experienced at getting its product into millions of homes in every nook and cranny of the country. They were ready to give our little sport a chance and how did rugby react?
What was the problem? Were there disagreements over how the money would be allocated? Was it arguments over player selection or coaching? Was it the schedule or game plan? Nope. Not a voice complained about any of these things, in fact no one complained of anything to do with the actual game itself. Yet the rugby public bucked, and bucked hard.
Articles and letters were written and conversations ensued over what this sponsorship would do, not to the team, but to the culture. The outcry and comments were truly amazing. Fears were aired over the image and propriety of the sponsor. This company was accused of promoting violence and debauchery.
Of course these concerns were coming from the same "blokes" who have made post match festivities famous for… violence and debauchery.
Concerns were voiced that the market associated with this sponsor would lower the sportsmanship and modest behavior that rugby demands. Did any of these critics watch the Tri-nations? I suppose George Gregan and Carlos Spencer are good buddies who never get riled up? Those Springboks are really known for their sportsmanship aren’t they?
Every American who watched the USA 7s on TV should remember back to their post game banter and see if it was centered on the play of the teams or on the rap soundtrack and advertisements. Most can’t remember the scores but they remember the music.
Not A Good Fit?
It was widely decided that this sponsorship was simply not a good fit. Why is that? Did the check bounce? Apparently the American rugger decided that somehow Hip-Hop was not as responsible as Guinness or Michelob. I wonder what image Vodafone, Ford or Steinlager portray.
It’s obvious that American rugby does not want to be a competitor but rather an "alternative" club of guys who share a passion for the same hobby. Not convinced? Try this test.
Visit a rugby chat-room and bring up the subject of gridiron. Then count the seconds before the subject shifts from rules of the game to end zone dances and all that is wrong with American society. It is unavoidable.
"Rugby players don’t dance after every tackle or pound their chests after every point," is a popular quote. Somehow it’s O.K. for New Zealand to dance before every match, and I guess the anti-celebration fans have never watched Fiji play. Nothing is sure but death, taxes, and conversations about American rugby eventually sinking in the swamp of, "I’m glad we aren’t football".
Attitude Adjustment Needed
The affect of the collective community should not be underestimated. If we rugby playing "Yanks" ever want to join the rest of our nation and its tradition of winning, there must be an attitude adjustment. Right now we are simply a clique crying over lack of attention.
How can we compete as Americans while trying our hardest to not let the sport become American? We say we want to grow and win. We tout how brotherly and accepting we are, when in reality we are simply looking for more people to join the club, enlarging our crowd of like-minded buddies.
If you see yourself as an exception, consider a few questions: how many players on your squad actually live in the neighborhood where your practice field is located? If you share the field with the local little league football team, do you see these neighbors as potential recruits or an annoyance? When a recruit or competing player shows up in baggy shorts, or wearing cornrows, do you think to yourself, "that isn’t what a rugby player looks like?"
A call must be put out to everyone in this country who loves the oblong ball, to re-evaluate what they want the sport to be. Maybe after we do this we can finally turn the corner. Maybe we can get Americans to play the game. Maybe we can get people to see the sport as an option and not just a foreign oddity. Maybe then American companies will fund us out of obscurity. Maybe then Americans will come across a match on TV and wonder what the score is rather than what that game is.
Maybe then we will win.