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In 2000, the USA Board of Directors started to explore the possibility that women’s college rugby begin a recognition process to garner an “Emerging Women’s Sports” status under the aegis of the NCAA. Jon Moore, a rugby referee in Columbus, wrote a detailed an informative article for Rugby Magazine in the June 2001 issue.
It represented, perhaps for the first time to rugby readership, the specific requirements and changes that would influence the sport should it rise to become a varsity sport as a member of the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics.
Central to the benefit that might accrue to a college sports program was the opportunity to use rugby recruitment as a convenient method to meet standards from Title IX of the Education Act of 1973. By 2000, NCAA Men’s participation totaled 207,000 while Women’s numbers were 145,000. Although Women had gained significantly from 1973 to 2000 under Title IX, there existed still a 63,000 gap, and the shortfall flagged an ongoing compliance problem for those universities with unequal gender participation.
As of November 2000, only two Women’s sports had risen as full-fledged NCAA National Championship Sports after Title IX: Ice Hockey and Water Polo. Yet to be elevated were Equestrian, Squash, and Bowling.
USA Rugby canvassed universities with women’s rugby programs to gauge interest in pursuing the Emerging Sports program. Eleven schools responded in the affirmative…yet none of these institutions pursued the varsity model, and, none today is a member of the seventeen NCAA schools in the Women’s NIRA League.
As a club sport for Men and Women, rugby in colleges enjoys an independence both organizational and cultural that would be forever altered by changing to an NCAA varsity sport. Some varsity differences include medical care, physical and strength training, drug testing, paid travel, uniforms, and a coach’s seat on the school’s Athletic Council. But a move to varsity also dislodges any of the on field and off field traditions that defined rugby for decades; no annual, overseas tours (one in four years), perhaps no B side recognition, and, most emphatically, no post game kegs (or, in the case of Boston’s Brazo Fuerte beers, no cans).
Currently, there are seventeen Women’s varsity rugby programs, mostly located in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states that play in three NIRA divisions. The magic number of programs to reach is forty to move to official NCAA varsity level. It remains an elusive goal.