Worth a 'try'
Women's rugby picks up steam at University, worldwide
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Scrawled across the pop-up that welcomed visitors to the USA Rugby website last week, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous words emphasized the scene surrounding them: a woman, rugby ball in hand, striving for a “try.”
A woman, defying proper decorum, if you accept the ad’s implication.
According to a 2010 study from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, rugby trails only softball and ice hockey as the United States’ fastest-growing sports. Women have accounted for a hefty share of that exponential development, with USA Rugby — the game’s governing body in America — reporting more than 20,000 registered female members.
After a 91-year absence, rugby will return to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro in the “sevens” format — in both men’s and women’s classifications. Meanwhile, the U.S. Women’s National Team claimed the first ever World Cup in 1991 and has remained a staple in the top five of the world rankings ever since.
For Virginia’s rugby club, a perennial juggernaut that was ranked ninth nationally at the conclusion of last season by RugbyMag.com, full NCAA membership may await in the next decade, according to USA Youth Development Manager Erin Kennedy.
Women’s rugby is hitting its stride in America. Yet for many people — even here at the University — playing it still qualifies as peculiar female behavior.
“It’s always something that defines me at U.Va., because it’s such a weird thing that I do,” said Kristen Musselman, a third-year on Virginia’s women’s rugby team. “In other groups I’m involved in, I’m just known as the rugby player.”
An easy conversion
Kennedy interacts primarily with high-school age and younger boys and girls, helping the sport gain a foothold in the crowded carousel of youth sports offerings. These young athletes have yet to encounter the incendiary world of modern college discourse, where contemplating and discussing multi-layered issues such as gender norms becomes a part of the quotidian in our everlasting quest to sound very smart and very moral. Thus the resistance to women’s rugby that has confronted Kennedy in her work represents the lingering issue confronting women’s rugby at its purest. Simply, most people think rugby necessitates masculinity.
“There is an underlying assumption that rugby is for boys,” Kennedy said. “And a lot of times when we do that outreach, a lot of boys programs pop up, and not as many girls programs pop up just automatically.”
So how are Kennedy and USA Rugby successfully attracting women to the sport?
Much of their effectiveness owes to the intrinsic qualities of the sport itself. For one thing, it caters to women of all body types and athletic predilections — forwards require strength and physicality, backs speed and elusiveness.
It also benefits from what could be crudely deemed a “hipster” effect. For Musselman, a soccer player and distance runner in high school, the chance to break from the mold and explore an uncommon sport has proved exhilarating.
“It’s such a rarely played sport that, to me, it’s this essence of adventure on my part of always learning something new about the sport [that excites me],” Musselman said.
Perhaps the most potent enticement for girls to play rugby lies in how closely it mirrors the men’s game. In contrast to sports such as basketball and lacrosse, which establish gender-specific rules and regulations, women’s rugby is virtually identical to the male game: same size ball, same scoring system, same field dimensions, same game duration. Kennedy believes that consistency between genders has played an integral role in building women’s rugby from obscure niche sport to budding phenomenon in the United States.
“It’s completely equal,” Kennedy said. “I think that’s a huge selling point.”
Besides, as Musselman points out, women’s rugby can actually afford players a certain social prestige.
“A lot of people tell me it’s very badass to play rugby,” she said.
Worth the try
Still, the perceived conflict between the kind of qualities expected of an athlete in a “macho” sport and the qualities usually associated with femininity shapes how people see women’s rugby. It prompts the question of whether girls should be plunging into a sport liable to earn them funny looks — or worse.
Both Kennedy and Musselman answered that query with a resounding “yes.”
“Rugby is definitely a sport that has a lot of those great qualities ingrained in it at the basic level,” Kennedy said. “So when we get involved in rugby, you’re working on a team, you have to be a leader on the field, you’re building those confidence and leadership skills. It’s very similar to girls in any sport.”
Like athletes in any sport, however, the women’s rugby players also like to point to the qualities unique to their sport — sometimes, that can mean considering the way their athleticism and love of rugby challenges gender norms.
“I think we definitely are proud of ourselves that we can surpass the level of women’s roles,” Musselman said, “This is a total counter-action to that role that we’re supposed to have.
The Cavalier Daily reached out to Virginia women’s rugby coach Nancy Kechner for this story. Kechner took offense to the interview request and declined to comment.
Kechner’s protectiveness reflects the exasperation of many club teams — and even many of the less ballyhooed varsity squads — with what media outlets choose to cover. It also speaks to a frustration unique to women’s rugby. By choosing to explore women’s rugby in the context of sexuality and gender-related issues, the sport is inherently being covered in a different context from the majority of this section’s work. The type of coverage itself could implicitly label women’s rugby as abnormal behavior.
Musselman acknowledged that the conflation of traditional “masculine” values with female athletes places an undue preoccupation on gender identity and on the presence of gay women in the sport.
“That’s just not something that fits into a social norm kind of a scale,” Musselman said. “And so at least on my part, dressing femininely and playing rugby is this weird counteraction that I at least have to my personality.”
When asked if the team discusses these issues regularly, however, Musselman shook her head. While aware of an undercurrent of gender-related angst surrounding the sport, the club members play because they enjoy the game and each other, she explains. For her, women’s rugby serves as an avenue to personal fulfillment more than social crusading.
Ultimately, the game resonates with the girls because of what links it to other sports, not what distinguishes it. Women’s rugby players yearn for those moments of bliss familiar to any athlete in any sport, male or female. Those moments when the outside world melts away with the opening whistle, when only triumph and the people striving for it on the field matter. In other words, moments when athletes get to behave exactly as they should.
“Sometimes you get dirty, sometimes you get bruised, but in the end, you’re still a girl and just tough and you’re a leader and on the field and doing something awesome,” Kennedy said.