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Jake's Take is a regular column from Jake Feury. A recent graduate from Middlebury College, Jake has been involved in rugby for a number of years. Some of his playing experience includes stints with the Morris Lions (NJ), the GPS Gallopers (Australia), Middlebury College (VT), Trinity College (Dublin), Atlantis, the Northeast Academy and various age-grade All-American trials and tours. 

Concussion fears are a dark cloud that hang over all collision sports. Now, for the first time, a non-rugby body is making decisions that are affecting collegiate rugby. These decisions are in response to worries regarding concussions. If USA rugby is not proactive in regards to concussion and player welfare policies and procedures, they leave themselves liable to more of this type of action.

The New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), an NCAA DIII conference which governs traditional collegiate sports, but not rugby, created the Medical Aspects In Sports Committee (MASC) construct recommendations for all of the NESCAC colleges. They include limitations on playing opportunities for club rugby players. It is definitely worth looking at all of the recommendations, but the lines that stick out are the following:

  1. An institution should limit its playing schedule, including competition in the fall and spring seasons, to a maximum of one scrimmage date and 9 dates of competition.
  2. The spring season should be limited to 5 weeks with a maximum of 3 practices per week.
  3. The limitations above exclude fall post-season play.

Making up the NESCAC are Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Connecticut College, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Wesleyan and Williams. From a rugby perspective, these institutions compete in various collegiate rugby conferences at varying levels of play. The NESCAC MASC is a group that was organized to create and implement best practices to improve player health and safety in all sports during a student-athlete's collegiate athletic career. This past year, MASC decided to direct their attention to rugby.

The recommendations, following a series of meetings with NESCAC athletic directors, administrators and presidents, were ultimate voted and passed by the NESCAC Presidents. These policies will be implemented for men’s and women’s rugby. Technically, individual colleges within the NESCAC are not forced to follow MASC recommendations, however, they typically do to limit liability.

Some of the recommendations do not change much for some of the colleges, and some recommendations, perhaps, may even improve the rugby club’s resources. For example, a certified athletic trainer is now required at all contests. The college may decide to fund this for the club, which would be an added benefit for most. However, the school may decide not to fund the trainer, which could potentially cause funding issues for the club. Each recommendation will affect different clubs differently.

Just to provide some reference on how this new policy is affecting the rugby programs this spring; take a look at Middlebury College. Last spring, Middlebury played in four sevens tournaments. With this new policy in place and with Middlebury having eight 15s league games last fall, the Panthers are only able to play one official sevens tournament this spring, as they need to stay under nine official dates of competition.

Player health and safety and player welfare should be the number one priority of collegiate athletics. That fact that the NESCAC is beginning to take rugby as seriously as many of the traditional varsity sports is commendable. It appears that the intention of these recommendations is in the best interest of the players involved. That being said, some of these recommendations appear a bit misguided.

For example, teams are limited to nine official competitions throughout the entire year, excluding fall playoffs. With the academic year running from roughly September to May, that is an average of one contest per month. There are many rugby teams in the collegiate landscape who completely obliterate that number of matches in a given academic year. Most teams have at least six to eight conference matches on the 15s schedule that they must participate in to remain a conference member. Without scheduling any non-league matches, this policy leaves only one to three total competitions (fifteens or sevens) that can be played in the spring.

Additionally, the fine print of the recommendations states that the limitations exclude fall playoffs. What that indicates is that if a team qualifies for playoffs after league play, the playoff matches do not contribute to their count of nine official competitions, so long as they are played in the fall. This means that some teams will not be able to participate in any competitions that have a portion of their playoff taking place in the spring.  Additionally, all collegiate 7s championships are all held in the spring. Depending on how many league matches each NESCAC team has to play in the fall, all of these playing opportunities have the potential to be fully off of the table, given the above guidelines.

Also, it is common during USA Rugby’s playoffs for teams to have to play two rounds in one weekend, which is certainly not in the best interest of the players from a health, safety and welfare aspect. For example, last year USA Rugby’s men’s DII playoffs had the rounds of sixteen and eight on consecutive days, followed by the semifinal and final on consecutive days two weeks later. It feels a bit misguided how MASC has no qualms with players possibly having to play back-to-back matches during playoffs, given their belief that one should not exceed nine non-playoff matches in a given year.

Player welfare and player health and safety has to be at the forefront of every decision in collegiate rugby. With the landscape so fragmented, as it is now, it makes planning to that end extremely difficult. It is commendable that the NESCAC and MASC are starting to acknowledge rugby’s existence more than they have in the past. It is also great to see they are putting forth efforts to keep players safe. It is evident, however, that these decisions were made without enough input from those who understand collegiate rugby most. The NESCAC was just the first non-rugby body to take actual action, but they likely will not be the last.