var·si·ty [vahr-si-tee]
1. (noun) any first-string team, esp. in sports, that represents a school, college, university, or the like.
2. (adjective) of or pertaining to a university or school team, activity, or competition.
The new era of collegiate rugby

Over the past few years we’ve seen a drastic increase in the level of institutional support for collegiate rugby.  While it has taken a variety of forms, one commonality is that it has given the collegiate program the resources to select and recruit the student athlete at a level that we haven’t before.

Historically the only inducements that existed for the prospective student athlete amounted to a few dollars to offset some tuition or books.  Even Cal, with their long history of championship rugby, realized that in most instances admission to Cal along with training in a varsity setting was enough to persuade the most promising young prospect to their campus.

Recently, things have begun to change. Universities have come to believe that rugby can be used to draw both students to their campus and also attention for their school. These schools have empty seats in classrooms and see providing institutional support to rugby as a way to help fill them. Plus, it provides a wonderful marketing opportunity as these schools compete against other colleges with larger enrollments and in many cases longer histories and tradition.

To be clear, I think this is great for our game and am excited about the prospect of more and more colleges embracing rugby as a mainstream varsity sport. However, an unfortunate by product of these latest advancements is the ambiguity and unbalance it has created with the existing eligibility regulations for collegiate rugby. The existing regulations rightfully created an all-encompassing atmosphere where the goal was to be as flexible as possible to the individual student athlete in hopes of providing playing opportunities. The regulations started off simple enough with 5 years to play rugby from a student’s first semester.  But, then the exceptions and extenuating circumstances started making their way into the regulations through amendments and extensions. These amendments were designed to address the needs of a specific student athlete that found themselves on the outside of the eligibility regulations through some extenuating event (military service, mission, schools that did not have rugby, etc.).

Combine these amended and stretched regulations with collegiate rugby programs with impressive levels of institutional support and what we have seen is an environment that fosters a competitive advantage through regulatory exception. Teams now have the resources to actively recruit student athletes that specifically fit these regulatory exceptions and thereby potentially gain a competitive advantage. While clearly that was not the intent of the existing regulations, that is the reality of today’s college rugby world.

While the issues are clearly identifiable, finding a suitable solution is much more difficult. The recently announced regulation changes are a result of a comprehensive review of collegiate eligibility and an attempt to balance the competition so that the traditional collegiate student athlete, which comprises over 96% of the collegiate playing population.  It seems that everyone is supportive of that one player on their team that is a non-traditional student; however, most of those same teams also take issue with a competition that includes teams full of student athletes that have gained eligibility through regulatory exception.

College rugby is a club sport on all but a handful of campuses in this country. Regulations should be consistent with the makeup of those teams. There’s no way to place a comparative value on individual exceptions through the regulations without opening the doors for all.  The player that spends four years as a fireman or a police officer is no less noble than the military veteran. The player that spends two years in the Peace Corps is just as dedicated to his fellow man as the missionary. There’s simply no way to adequately or equitably evaluate who should or should not receive an extended amount of eligibility.

The new collegiate eligibility regulations treat each potential student athlete the same while holding to the core principle that our regulations should be reflective of and supportive to the constituents we serve – which clearly is the traditional 18 to 24 year old college student.  Five years to play rugby from high school graduation with the opportunity to gain an extra year if you miss a year of school. While clearly some will not like these new regulations, it is indisputable that it treats every potential collegiate student athlete equitably regardless of their life choices.

It should be noted that it is realized and recommended that variations of the eligibility rules should be available for differing levels of collegiate rugby.

Marty Bradley
2011-2012 Chair of the Collegiate Eligibility Committee