You are here
It has long been a goal of the American rugby community to bring the sport in the United States to a comparable playing field, both physically and metaphorically, in relation to the traditional American sports. The NCAA naming women’s rugby as an emerging sport certainly appeared to be a step in that direction, however, all that glitters is not always gold.
With the fifteens Women’s Rugby World Cup taking place this August in Ireland, the national team is setting up a pre-tour camp at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California. It is expected to be a comprehensive setup that includes free housing, meals and, depending on how current fundraising efforts progress, stipends for as many players as possible. Given the NCAA’s enormous handbook that details a plethora of regulations that players must follow to keep their amateur status, it is likely that if an athlete from the growing list of NCAA varsity women’s rugby programs were invited to this camp, they would not be able to accept a stipend for their services.
The NCAA has been under fire over the past several years regarding this issue. There have been many well-documented examples. For instance, the Ohio State football tattoo scandal, which included legendary coach Jim Tressel and talented quarterback-turned-wide-receiver Terrelle Pryor, was a majorly publicized story where players were signing memorabilia in return for cash and free tattoos.
In 2014 members of the Northwestern Football team tried to unionize, but ultimately failed. Collegiate athletes followed that up with a victory, however, as they fought and won a battle against EA Sports. They are now being compensated for the use of their likeness in the NCAA video games that EA consistently put out until 2013, when they halted the tradition due to the legal concerns that arose. Moreover, running back Todd Gurley, who later became the tenth overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, was suspended for four games during his final season at the University of Georgia for accepting money for signed memorabilia.
Through all of these events, the NCAA and their President, Mark Emmert, have maintained steadfast insistence that collegiate sports must remain amateur. It is plausible to believe, however, that they may amend the policies that define the amateur designation.
While this issue has been a hot topic in the revenue-generating collegiate sports, which include predominantly football and basketball, it has also reared its ugly head in niche sports that invoke national team involvement. When looking at the situation outlined above that highlights the Women's Rugby World Cup, one can find a comparable situation that took place at the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
After a successful run in the 2012 London Games, USA Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin decided to compete in college at Cal. In this decision, she vacated endorsement opportunities that would likely have amounted to millions of dollars. Similarly, Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky passed on endorsement opportunities after the 2016 Rio Games to attend college at Stanford. Had these athletes accepted any endorsement money at all during those times, they would have lost their collegiate eligibility.
There are currently sixteen collegiate women’s rugby teams participating in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) under the NCAA umbrella. It is interesting to think about the downsides to their NCAA affiliation. While earning significant money on endorsements is hard to come by in women’s rugby, the World Cup preparation camp stipend is a concrete example of something realistic that may not be permissible to athletes competing in the NIRA.
Athletes from schools not in the NIRA will be fully eligible to accept the stipends. Is it great that our women’s athletes might be receiving stipends for their training leading up to the World Cup? Yes. Is it great that the NCAA is recognizing women’s rugby as an emerging sport? Yes. To be frank, this is a great problem to have and illustrates the rapid development that rugby has gone through in recent years.
In the past, this conversation would not even need to be had, as these two great developments did not exist. It is intriguing, however, to see the paradox of this scenario. While it is great to gain some respect and acknowledgement from the main governing body of collegiate athletics, the NCAA’s rules and regulations could complicate many things further down the line. While there may not be a single NIRA player involved in the pre-departure World Cup camp and this paradox may not even come to light, this is still an interesting hypothetical to keep an eye on for the future.