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The rules of engagement are set. By playing in Major League Rugby, a player becomes a pro, and therefore forfeits his collegiate eligibility forever. That’s the current understanding between the league and USA Rugby.
It needs to be reconsidered to everyone’s benefit. MLR has planted its flag in the spring, as its second season will establish a January-through-June season, putting college rugby, MLR and the Eagles on a collision course. With a couple of deft turns, we can avoid a pile up and be off to the races in lockstep.
College vs. Academy
College rugby has, for a long time, been the premier breeding ground for Eagles. The club game has unearthed plenty of talent, but no organization can lay claim to as many results as Cal. For decades, the Bears have seemingly put forward a future national team player or three with every graduating class. Recent years have seen an uptick in contributions from the likes of BYU, Life, St. Mary’s, Lindenwood and Central Washington.
The boom is the result of more daily training environments as on-and-off campus resources increase. It’s not just Cal anymore, which is a big reason why the Eagles are 8-0 in 2018.
Shaun Davies (BYU), Paul Lasike (BYU), Ben Landry (UW-Whitewater), Cam Dolan (Life), Nate Augspurger (Minnesota), Vili Toluta’u (C. Washington), Bryce Campbell (Indiana), Ryan Matyas (Arizona), Peter Malcolm (Wheeling Jesuit), Dylan Audsley (St. Mary’s), Dino Waldren (St. Mary’s), Josh Whippy (BYU), Matt Jensen (BYU), Angus MacLellan (Davenport), Aladdin Schirmer (C. Washington), Nate Brakeley (Dartmouth), Malon Al-Jiboori (Lindenwood), Chance Wenglewski (Lindenwood) and Nick Civetta (Notre Dame) are all non-Cal collegiate products who’ve earned callups or caps this year.
With the advent of Major League Rugby and its academy system, that will change. It’s still early days for the MLR, with franchises focusing mostly on their marquee teams. Getting those off the ground is difficult enough. But some of the financially and structurally stable clubs are making moves on the academy front.
The Houston Sabercats recently announced a partnership with the West Houston Lions, giving their extended players an official DI club home when they’re not being selected for the MLR team. That lends itself to the Sabercats being able to ease their way into the academy structure, effectively deputizing the club as one. The Sabercats will hire the Lions a coach and install similar systems.
New Orleans has tabbed Taylor Howden to get its academy off the ground. Utah is looking for someone to run its initiative.
Glendale was the only team to run a full-blown academy in the inaugural year, fielding a U20 side against collegiate competition. The on-field results were wildly successful, and Mika Kruse rose through the academy to play big minutes and earn several starts for the Raptors.
Glendale has decided to transition from fielding a full academy side, as it struggled to find competitive games. Instead, it will march forward by integrating a smaller number of academy players into the MLR training regimen full-time.
We’re still a way off from the academies extending contracts to kids fresh out of high school, but not that far off. Eventually, a High School All-American being faced with the choice of going to college on a nominal scholarship, if one at all, or drawing a paycheck from an MLR academy while still being able to study full-time will be the norm.
The overwhelming majority of college rugby players receive no financial aid in exchange for playing. They practice once or twice a week. Little or no medical support. For those with professional or international ambitions, their only options to get to a daily training environment are attending one of maybe a dozen universities and paying full freight, or close to it, or jumping directly into an MLR contract. Socioeconomic and academic barriers leave a lot of potential behind with the first option, and most are incapable of doing the second.
By simply offering housing and a daily training environment, an MLR club can match or beat the value proposition of almost every college program in America while still allowing players to study full-time online or at a brick-and-mortar campus in an MLR city, all with a clear pathway to the pros. That’s without offering a dime in payment. If and when the academies are able to offer contracts, the flow of top-level high school talent into the college game will be at least partially diverted.
That will cheapen the collegiate product, even if it’s just 10 high school kids a year choosing MLR academies over collegiate ball. And it will make the academies the main feeders into MLR, which may already have become the main feeder into the men’s senior national team.
Seasonality and Shamateurism
There are two obstacles in the way of a symbiotic future existence that will not only work in the favor of Major League Rugby, but the collegiate game, the Eagles and American rugby as a whole – seasonality and the ill-conceived romance around amateurism.
Seasonality is simple – fall 15s and spring 7s. It’s what’s best for almost all of college rugby, allowing for competitively balanced seasons, a clear delineation between 15s and 7s, and an offseason. It's right for academics. It's right for player welfare.
There is no NCAA sport that competes 11 months of the year like rugby. There isn’t one where two separate codes, think indoor and outdoor track, volleyball and beach volleyball, run concurrently. In collegiate rugby, there is no story to sell to sponsors, broadcasters, fans and administrators, when St. Mary’s enters the playoffs having played 15 games in a row, while Army has played three in four months. That doesn't happen anywhere in traditional intercollegiate athletics.
What we currently do is bad for player welfare, it’s bad for the packaging of our game to the coveted outsiders we hope to turn into rugby people, and it makes no sense from a weather and access perspective for the overwhelming majority of collegiate teams.
Anyone who is being honest, as objective as possible, and is acting in the best interest of the game knows and gets that. Those who deploy smoke-and-mirror counterarguments are protecting self-interests. The only coherent argument against fall 15s and spring 7s is the lack of available linear television time due to football.
That’s like being overweight but not starting a diet because you’re worried you’ll get snubbed for the Mr. Universe title anyway, so why even try? Rugby competing with football in anyway is so far from a reality it’s silly and illogical to make plans based off the potential staredown. We don’t need to convert football season ticket holders. There are more than 300 million people in this country, and contrary to what ESPN would have you believe, they’re not all rabid football fans.
Most everyone gets that already. That revolution is already underway. Not to mention, every day there are fewer and fewer cable subscribers and more and more OTT subscribers, so linear television will be worth less tomorrow than it is today, and that trend is on a fixed track. Why base your long-term vision on the perceived preferences of a dying medium?
More insidious is the concept that college sports are for amateurs, and pro sports are for pros. This debate has raged on for years and there are many angles, so I won’t wade too deeply into the already-worn dialogue, as the monolith of intercollegiate sports, the NCAA, has already made its decision by allowing cost-of-attendance stipends. Call them by whatever carefully crafted term the NCAA coined with an eye toward future litigation, but the stipends are checks that amount to as much as $6,000 or more a year written directly to players.
Collegiate athletes are now being paid to play. There is no reason for men’s collegiate rugby, which has about as much a chance of being adopted by the NCAA someday as Papua New Guinea had of winning the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, to hold back its players and the American game by self-imposing some archaic standard of amateurism.
In fact, we’re already making exceptions. College players who get called up to the Eagles get paid a per diem. So, if you’re Calvin Whiting and you play in all five Americas Rugby Championship matches next spring, you could make upwards of $3,500 while playing with the Eagles. What’s the difference between allowing the MLR to write a check to college players so they can eat and sleep with dignity while chasing their dreams and allowing USA Rugby to do the same thing?
Here’s the pitch – Like D2 men and the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association, that which includes every NCAA varsity program in the country and has the highest involvement of college administrators of any current collegiate rugby organization, already do, everyone plays fall 15s to a championship. Spring 15s isn’t prohibited – teams can do what they wish, but championships are reserved for the fall, and 7s championships are reserved for the spring.
You’re in the 1-percent capable of playing MLR while in school, and you make the personal choice to take a semester away from your normal campus? You can go play MLR in the spring and return to your collegiate team in the fall with full collegiate eligibility intact.
It won’t work for everybody. If you’re going to Dartmouth, chances are you’re not taking the time away from school, though Madison Hughes figured out how to balance participating full-time in the 7s World Series while also studying full-time at an Ivy League institution.
Imagine how much better Bryce Campbell would be now if he’d spent his autumns playing Big Ten rugby at IU and his springs playing for Glendale. How much better would Alex Maughan be if he went through the meat grinder that is the Mid-South one semester and spent the second semester training with the NOLA Gold?
It doesn’t have to interrupt school, either. Hughes is far from the only one to figure out taking classes online or at another school to play rugby. It’s something players have done for years to be able to take advantage of opportunities domestically and abroad. And it’s common for student-athletes of all sports to pick up classes online or through other institutions over winter break or the summer, or even the semester, to bolster their GPA or credit hours to remain eligible.
How would it work? First, let’s make everyone feel better by modeling it as closely after the NCAA’s stipend system as possible. Agree to a flat stipend amount for everyone. All collegiate players receive, say $5,000 a season as a stipend, plus housing. Some MLR teams are already providing housing, either free or subsidized, to players. You’re not really paying them anything lucrative, you’re just subsidizing their existence with a stipend. Maybe it’s $3,000 or $4,000. Make it uniform so there are no bidding wars.
Impending Player Shortage
A collegiate player infusion starting at the end of the fall semester would be a Godsend for MLR clubs, who this season risk losing their best American and Canadian players for as many as five weeks for the Americas Rugby Championship. If Gary Gold decided he wanted to call up Chad London from Glendale, the Raptors could pull Calvin Whiting from BYU for cover. Or if Whiting is available for selection because BYU’s 15s season is now in the fall only, maybe Gold selects Whiting over London, letting Glendale keep their frontline center for five weeks.
The current situation, where MLR teams are already chaffed by having to surrender players for large chunks of their inaugural season for onerous suspensions and the June tests, is rife for conflict. Having to pay players who aren't available to play for them for whatever reason causes MLR teams to shell out more cash for the guys actually lacing up the boots, and the bottom line is the league's biggest threat. Without collegiate players helping make up the numbers, MLR teams will likely be ransacked for the ARC with few contingencies. Being able to replace their Eagles and Canadian internationals with collegians making just $5,000, plus housing, is a steal.
It’s a win for college rugby, as seasonality is the single biggest issue facing the game right now, and this offers further incentive to a solution most of the country is already eager to get to. It’s a win for the college player, who now gets to pursue the game at the highest level while maintaining eligibility. It’s a win for the college teams, who would be wise to collaborate with the MLR instead of competing with their burgeoning academies. It’s a win for the MLR clubs, who get an affordable solution to international call-ups. It’s a win for the Eagles, whose coaches now get to see college prospects developing at a faster rate than ever before and playing against the rest of the domestic player pool.
It was always in the MLR’s plans to have one. The league’s handbook, distributed in the spring, even outlines an annual player draft and an expansion draft. Both are impossible right now. With a large chunk of the league making $12-an-hour, a traditional draft doesn’t make sense – you can’t realistically tell a 22-year-old he’s been drafted to New York and has to live there on $12-an-hour.
But what you can do is institute a draft for undergraduates seeking to play MLR in the spring and return to collegiate rugby the following fall. With a uniform stipend already agreed on and housing provided, interested and able college players can enter their name into a draft that falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If Joe from St. Joe’s gets drafted by San Diego, the Legion are on the hook for his housing and a monthly stipend. That shifts responsibility for the disparity in cost of living between MLR cities from the player to the team, while also providing an exciting, fun, and fair way to disburse talent across the league.
Players who are graduating or running out of their eligibility can enter the free agency market, which will presumably become better defined going forward. The stipends should be gauranteed so no one takes a semester off or away and gets burnt. If a team takes a swing by drafting a college player who doesn't pan out, it's only on the hook for the $5,000 stipend. There will be some logistics to iron out.
The NFL draft has become a monster, and free agency always dominates national headlines. The NBA world has stopped spinning four times for Lebron James – once for the 2003 draft lottery, once for The Announcement, once for The Letter, and once for The Lakers. Baseball has the Hot Stove and a couple of kinds of drafts. Major League Rugby will benefit when it can say the same.
Why should college rugby bend over backwards for a fledgling league that may not be around in five years? It shouldn’t necessarily, but there’s a strong argument to be made that it should accommodate the MLR as best it can because the success of a professional league is the right thing for the sport in this country, period.
Isn’t it about time that’s how we start making our decisions, all of us?