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Editor’s note: The author worked in the admissions department and coached the rugby program at Lindenwood-Belleville, which is fully-funded and fits the mold of the varsity or quasi-varsity movement.
Varsity. It’s a word that gets used a lot in rugby circles nowadays. And it tends to rankle some, perhaps for different reasons. The idea is to deconstruct some of the misconceptions or hang-ups around the word, shed light on how the programs tagged with it operate, and spark some thought on the impact the increase of funded programs has had on the collegiate landscape.
Have a search for the definition of varsity, and you’ll find it difficult to support the opinion that only those programs administered by a university’s athletic department can call themselves such. No thresholds for dollar amount in institutional aid. No thresholds for having a paid coach. No threshold for having to offer athletic scholarships.
Institutions of higher education are all a little different. Some are a lot different. But internally, each may have their own definition for varsity, such as at Cal, where rugby, the longest-running intercollegiate sport on campus, has had to fight to keep that status on a couple of different occasions. It’s been successful, but it took proving the program is 100-percent self-sufficient financially, in addition to providing annual financial assistance to help underwrite two varsity women’s sports, lacrosse and gymnastics.
Cal, though, does not offer rugby scholarships. Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard field NCAA women’s programs. There are no men's NCAA rugby programs, as the NCAA only recognizes rugby as an emerging sport for the women. Thanks in large part to Title IX and rugby's place on the American sporting totem pole, men's rugby will likely never become an NCAA sport.
The hope is the number of NCAA women's programs continues to rise and surpass 40. Currently, the NCAA teams compete within the framework of the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association, an independent organization which crowns a champion not recognized by the NCAA. Once there are 40 teams, rugby can apply to become a championship sport, and if accepted, the NCAA will sponsor an official national championship. There are significant hurdles to clear to be considered an NCAA rugby program, meaning all 17 participant universities have to provide a minimum amount of support to rugby, and the programs are beholden to NCAA bylaws and regulations, which can restrict how many contests you play, how many practices you conduct, and the window in which a season fits.
The women’s programs at Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard are considered varsity by their own institutions and would tick all the boxes one would expect from a varsity setup, except one – scholarships. Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships in any sport. So does that mean these programs aren’t varsity? Does it mean Jeremy Lin didn’t play varsity basketball at Harvard and Bill Bradley at Princeton? Of course not.
This concept isn’t exclusive to the Ivy League. The Pioneer Football League is a conference in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision. That’s the same level of football Jerry Rice played in college. The Pioneer League includes universities like Butler, Drake, Davidson and Valparaiso, all institutions which have populated your March bracket from time to time. None of them provide athletic scholarships or financial aid for football athletes. Does that mean this NCAA FCS conference is filled with “club” teams? Of course not.
On the flip side, Lindenwood’s men’s and women’s programs offer significant financial aid specifically for rugby. They have full-time coaches, paid assistants, large budgets, access to the facilities used by their NCAA counterparts, designated locker rooms, full-time athletic trainers and all the trimmings you’d expect from a varsity program.
But the school has two designations for its funded sports – NCAA and student life. Rugby is a student-life sport at Lindenwood. There, SLS programs have athletic directors assigned to them, too, just like the NCAA sports do. Even on the women’s side, rugby has refrained from becoming an NCAA program. Does that mean it’s not varsity? Of course not. Life’s women can’t go NCAA, because the school is an NAIA member. The Running Eagles aren’t varsity? I have a hard time swallowing that.
WHY ARE THERE MORE FUNDED PROGRAMS?
Hopefully the picture’s been painted that the definition of varsity is a fluid and subjective one, and arguing over whether a program is or isn’t varsity is an exercise in futility. The debate over the definition and what it really means has largely been fueled by the trend of more and more colleges backing rugby programs.
On the women’s side, the NCAA movement is largely one to satiate Title IX requirements. Rugby is viewed as a relatively cheap way to boost the total of women’s scholarships on campus, helping balance the athletic department’s scales. On the men’s side, the varsity or quasi-varsity movement is largely one to boost enrollment.
There are exceptions – Central Washington added men’s and women’s rugby as varsity sports, not doing much to tip the table as far as Title IX is concerned, and at Lindenwood the women’s team is an enrollment driver that doesn’t factor into Title IX because it’s categorized as a student life sport.
The state of higher education nationwide stands at a precipice. While public universities are dealing with the constant threat and realities of budget cuts from their governmental benefactors, most private institutions are reeling from the steady nationwide decline in college enrollment. For many, the answer is to increase the value proposition for potential students, and adding to the variety of athletic programs offered is a way to do that. Rugby, again, is a cheap alternative – all you need is a set of jerseys and minimal equipment compared to hockey, lacrosse and many other team sports.
The prospect of increased enrollment is why Davenport, Lindenwood, Lindenwood-Belleville, American International College, Notre Dame College, Wheeling Jesuit, Queens, Bethel, Iowa Central Community College and others have started hiring coaches and funding serious rugby programs, offering significant financial aid to attract rugby-playing students and their enrollment dollars. So rugby is run at a profit, or at least intended to, at each of these schools.
HOW ENROLLMENT-DRIVEN SCHOLARSHIPS WORK
To understand, first you need to know the term “cost of attendance”. Colleges and universities are federally required to publish a cost of attendance, including tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation and personal expenses for one full year.
At Lindenwood, the cost of attendance for 2017/2018 is just over $30,000. $26,172 goes directly to the school for tuition, room and board. Hypothetically, take $10,000 off in financial aid. Let’s say it’s $6,000 for academics and $4,000 for rugby. So the school is still getting $16,172 a year from the student, beating the break-even point and thus generating a profit.
Schools scholarship differently. Some have a rigid amount they’ll give for rugby, so everyone gets $2,000 or $9,000 or whatever the predetermined number is. Some have sliding scales depending on need-based and academic thresholds – if you score this on the ACT and have this GPA, you qualify for this amount academically. If you qualify for this amount of federal financial aid, we’ll give you this as a need-based bump. Then the coach tacks on as much rugby money, up to a certain limit, as it takes to get you to sign on the dotted line.
Some employ a system where they get to balance their own books, working off an average discount rate, so if they need to offer more than the average to get Johnny, they’ll get three Timmy’s at a lesser amount to pay for him. But, regardless of the school, believe there are measures in place to assure the bottom line is met and exceeded.
This is largely how small college athletics work across all sports. Unlike the athletic departments at major universities you see on television every autumn Saturday, those at small colleges can’t operate at a loss. This is part of how they stay in the black. So while these practices may come as a surprise for rugby parents, players and coaches, it’s not a new or rugby-specific phenomenon.
Are non-athletes also receiving financial aid at these enrollment-driven schools? Absolutely. Need-based, leadership, legacy, and many, many other kids of scholarships, grants or deductions exist, depending on the school. Academic money is often easier to come by. If you go to a Catholic college, you might get a discount just for having attended a Catholic high school.
Schools don’t just want athletes walking around. They want general students, too. However, in my experience, playing a sport on top of being a good student will get you more money than the walking-and-chewing-gum discount. And at some places you can stack several of these on top of each other.
Some cynics will try and detract from funded programs by saying they don’t have scholarships, they have grants. Debates between whether or not you have a scholarship, grant or some other form of financial aid are as moot as arguing whether or not a program is varsity – at the end of the day, no matter what you call it, it’s something that enables you to go to school for x-amount less than you would without it. When you go to buy a couch, does it matter if it’s a coupon, a discount, a sale price or a rebate that makes it cheaper? Not really. What matters is what you get and, ultimately, what you pay to get it.
WHAT ADVANTAGES DO FUNDED PROGRAMS HAVE?
This is an interesting one. Scholarships help, but as I’ve hopefully depicted, most of the time they just get the cost of going to a private institution in the same neighborhood as going to the state school you may have already been considering. Often, they can’t even do that, so it’s not like these schools are fielding the best players money can buy, and that’s why they’re more successful, on average, than your traditional club team.
The exception can be with international students. As ignorant as American families can be about the college admissions process and how the financial aid system works, international families are usually left climbing an even steeper hill. Not to mention, the low-cost in-state option is often off the table for the kids abroad wanting to study in America, making the aid they receive from an enrollment-driven school even more impactful. Without scholarships, Sebastian Kalm doesn’t end up at Lindenwood, Marcus Walsh at Life, or perhaps even JP Eloff at Davenport.
But Cal has managed to get plenty of international talent without scholarships. So has Kutztown. And some schools, like Arkansas State and Mary Washington, can offer steep discounts to international students they can’t extend to domestic recruits. There may well be money on offer for international students at your school your rugby club doesn’t know about and isn’t leveraging.
Access to facilities can be better at a funded program, but not always. At the University of Tennessee, the Vols utilize a privately funded and owned complex off campus that puts many on-campus pitches to shame. Down the road at Middle Tennessee State, there’s a great set of fields, too. UCLA has a picturesque pitch in the shadows of the famed Pauley Pavilion. Arizona’s William David Sitton Field is one to be envied. Dartmouth has a gorgeous setup. All of those are “club” programs.
The real benefit to being a fully-funded program is the daily training environment. When there is infrastructure around a program, people are receiving rugby-specific aid, on-campus facilities are a given, and there is paid coaching and medical staff, it can be easier to demand more of your players. You can practice five days a week, do strength and conditioning three days a week and reasonably expect that every member of the team will show up to every session. If they don’t, you can hold them accountable more easily.
Moreover, these scholarship-offering programs intentionally recruit people who heavily factor rugby into their college decision – they’re attracting people who want to spend most waking free hours doing rugby. That’s in stark contrast to the traditional clubs who recruit from their campus’ general populations, often converting people who’ve never touched a rugby ball before.
There are club programs, like at Dartmouth, who have created daily training environments. It doesn’t take the athletic director’s wand to do so. St. Mary’s, the torchbearer of non-varsity, not fully-funded programs, didn’t catch up to Cal by practicing two days a week. BYU, believe it or not, is also not a fully-funded team under its athletic department, though it does enjoy a heightened status other club sports don't. It uses the facilities of its NCAA counterparts, but pays a lot of money to do so, which it generates through alumni. That’s usually where the really competitive club teams make up the difference – alumni donations. Indiana, a club program in the true sense, has an endowment approaching $1 million, just for rugby.
Michigan has a full-time paid coach. So do Penn State (which also enjoys an existence on the fence between being considered ‘varsity’ by its administration and a traditional club), BYU, Dartmouth, Clemson and Yale. Their salaries are largely, if not solely, funded by alumni.
WHAT THEY DON’T HAVE
Let’s be honest. These enrollment-driven programs are typically at schools struggling, be it to attract enough students to keep their head above water financially, or some other way.
Life University has traditionally been a chiropractic college. With the relatively recent addition of undergraduate degrees, of which there are just 15 in total, almost all of them revolving around health, nutrition and exercise science, the school is trying to rebrand itself.
Lindenwood-Belleville hasn’t even offered full-time undergraduate day options for a decade, so it’s really a startup trying to find its footing. Wheeling Jesuit, facing millions of dollars in debt, just sold its campus to the local diocese. Davenport and NDC have acceptance rates hovering right around 90-percent, indicating they're not very academically selective.
So, and it’s important to remember I’m speaking from personal experience here not reciting statistics, most of the time students choose these schools not for their overwhelming academic prowess, wide variety of degree programs or because of the scholastic rigor, but because of rugby. That’s well and good. Not everyone can afford or get into their top state schools, and rugby is serving that demographic, as well as outliers who really value the rugby portion of their college experience.
And there is value, there, right? That’s why athletics and education are so intertwined in our culture, to begin with, because sports can help teach lessons and develop young people in a way study groups, quizzes and field trips can’t. Cal’s Jack Clark is known to tell his pupils that not only will they graduate with a degree in the field of their choosing, they’ll graduate with a Ph.D. in team. That should be the goal and reality of every collegiate rugby program with a daily training environment.
But for the high school rugby players hoping to become doctors, or those who want to earn a diploma perceived to open doors just by the name at the top, these enrollment-driven programs don’t usually tick that box. They also often can’t provide the experience of tailgating before the big football game, attending the pep rallies and bonfires during homecoming and the option of participating in the robust Greek communities found on larger campuses.
And it’s still the case in this country that a large chunk of the best high school programs are from top private schools like Sacramento Jesuit (CA), Xavier (NY) and Gonzaga (D.C.). Or they draw from affluent neighborhoods and suburbs, like Greenwich (CT) and Royal Irish (IN). The parents of those kids typically don’t want them to attend a small liberal arts college or major in culinary nutrition, meaning the “varsity” teams aren’t often getting players from the best high school programs in the country.
WHAT’S YOUR POINT?
There are many different varieties of varsity. There are many different kinds of financial aid. And there are many pros/cons, selling points and value propositions at wildly different institutions across the country. Not one of them is necessarily better than the other – they all serve different demographics, different regions and different needs, and they’re all part of the fabric that is American higher education.
In 1996, the scholarship-less Princeton basketball team upset defending champion UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Bruins were presumably all on full rides, including four who would go on to play in the NBA.
In the last five years, four schools have split the top two major rugby national championships on the men’s side – BYU, Cal, Life and St. Mary’s. Two of them are considered varsity on their campus, Cal and Life, while two are not, BYU and St. Mary’s.
Army's rugby teams are considered varsity at West Point. Navy's are not. Think that will slow the Midshipmen from trying to beat the Black Knight when they meet this spring? Penn State's women are not considered varsity in Happy Valley. Yet the Nittany Lions beat AIC, NDC and Army, all varsity programs, this fall.
As far as rugby is concerned, the lesson to be taken is that just because a program has a coach who receives a paycheck directly from the university, who can offer some financial aid to recruits and have an office down the hall from the athletic director doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful on the pitch. And just because it has none of those things doesn’t mean it can’t mix it up with those who do.