One NFL player, two world-class sprinters, and a collection of well-decorated and experienced American ruggers wasn’t enough to bring Olympic hardware back to the States. Of course it wasn’t.
This isn’t a USA Rugby bashing and this isn’t a complaint blog. I’m proud of what USA Rugby put together for the Olympics and I was mostly impressed by their effort on the global stage. In my opinion, they optimized their personnel and did a quality job of inspiring Americans to fall in love with rugby. The best takeaway from Rio, is perhaps that we made rugby look cool.
Why didn’t it work out? Why did Argentina have their way with us? Why did a bunch of guys from small villages in Fiji physically overpower us? The answer is simple: those nations sent their top athletes, and we didn’t (or, rugby was an option for their best athletes from a young age).
Garrett Bender is a good rugby player from Minnesota. Ben Pinkelman is another good, young player from Cherry Creek, Colorado. They are both taller than 6’ and heavier than 200lbs. They both played significant minutes in Rio because they are two of America’s best rugby players. The speedy Zack Test is one of USA Rugby’s most capped players. He is from Oregon and also played important minutes in the Olympics. If you see where I’m going with this you might say, “But Zack Test played NCAA D1 football at University of Oregon in 2006-2007!” Well, he never played meaningful minutes for the Ducks, but yes, let’s talk about that.
The concern here isn’t with Zack Test- he’s a fine athlete who has earned his stripes. We should all be concerned with the other guys from that Oregon football team. Ed Dickson started over Test as a WR/TE- he now has a Super Bowl Ring. Patrick Chung and Jonathan Stewart also played on that team and went on to have successful NFL careers. Another college teammate of Test’s was Super Bowl Champion Dennis Dixon, who won the PAC-10 Offensive Player of the Year as the Ducks Quarterback in 2007.
What do Dixon, Stewart, Chung, and Dickson have in common? They all grew up in low-income communities where minorities are the majority- and they were never exposed to rugby.
Dixon, for example, grew up struggling in Oakland before his talents lifted him to a college education. It is well-documented that Marshawn ‘Beast Mode’ Lynch overcame an incredibly difficult childhood in that same area-before earning a scholarship to University of California- can you imagine him playing rugby?
The unfair common denominator here is that the zip codes in which Pinkelman, Bender, and Test grew up offered them rugby- along with countless other opportunities. Rugby is more of a foreign language in the zip codes of Dickson, Stewart, Chung, Dixon, and Lynch whose determination and freakish athleticism helped them overcome countless obstacles on their way to earning D1 College Football scholarships.
These are microcosm examples of what is a large scale disparity in America- illustrated accurately by rugby, and specifically our Olympic team.
Patrick Willis grew up in extreme poverty in Bruceton, Tennessee before becoming a 7-time Pro Bowler and one of the NFL’s most deadly tacklers. He retired abruptly (many thought he was just getting started), citing fear of head injuries as the driving force. Rugby doesn’t exist in Bruceton but forget the big names for a second and think about all the great young men and women around the country.Are they missing out on rugby, or is rugby missing out on them? The answer: Yes.
Want more proof that American Rugby is exclusive to affluent suburbs? Look at the USA men’s 15s roster. Every player is either a Polynesian import from the islands or a white player from a suburb. Carlin Iles is the only exception (although he and Perry Baker are only on the 7s team) and even he didn’t find rugby until becoming an established sprinter after high school.
To my knowledge, there have been less than 4 African-American rugby players to crack the USA 15’s roster.
I wish I could continue to make this case by giving you the ethnic demographics breakdown of American Youth Rugby participation- but I can’t, because the data isn’t available (or just not published). USA Rugby has not released any data on the percentage of youth ruggers who are African American, Latino, White, etc… If they did, the numbers would reveal an embarrassingly low amount of African-Americans participating, and 150 of them would be from Memphis Inner City Rugby. My guess is that the breakdown would be something like: 96% white; 2% Polynesian/Islander; 1% Hispanic/Latino; 1% African-American. Again, that’s just my guess, and if I’m anywhere near correct- it’s obvious why the information isn’t available. The numbers highlight an extreme disparity and makes Rugby look like the next Lacrosse. Do we really want to stay parallel with Lacrosse? No offense to the LAX guys, but we can do better than that. Rugby costs pennies compared to lacrosse and we have an international stage that lacrosse lacks. There is no reason for American rugby to remain exclusive.
Here at Memphis Inner City Rugby, we pay USA Rugby more than $10,000 per year in order to register our 140+ student-athletes ($75.00 per player). We independently raise those funds- and it’s really hard to do that. If you’re still reading this article, chances are you’ve done something to help us raise that (thank you!). Without that money, rugby wouldn’t be accessible to the super awesome, smart, passionate, talented kids in Memphis.
Without that money, Donovan Norphlet wouldn’t have started in, and won the 2016 College Rugby National Championship as a Freshman for Life U. Tyler Smith wouldn’t have overcome his lack of confidence to become one of the most undersized & deadly tacklers known to man. Malik Hearon wouldn’t have had an outlet for his natural leadership, as he captained Souslville Rugby before earning a scholarship to MTSU. Calvin Gentry may have earned a football scholarship instead of becoming one of America’s rising rugby stars and a Freshman at Arkansas State. Javonni Merritt wouldn’t have found rugby and 3 months later been one of the most dominant players at Life U’s high school women’s camp. Dontavious Jefferson wouldn’t have adopted rugby as an obsession that keeps him focused on his academic & athletic goals. These are all examples of the power of rugby which have transpired over the last 4 months- they are the compounding results of what we started just 4 years ago. Imagine the stories we’ll be able to tell after 8 years, 10 years, and hundreds more young men & women.
There is more good news. We’re helping inspire similar movements in cities around the country. Coach Torres founded the Dallas Youth Rugby initiative after watching our program’s success and consulting with our leadership. Coach Bayer pioneered the movement years ago in DC. Fort Myers, Boyton Beach, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans are sizzling with potential and conversations are being had to launch similar movements. The need is there, the kids are ready, and all the future gold medals are ours for the taking if we shift our focus to building competitive rugby in these places. If we choose to ignore this massive disparity, we are electing mediocrity and doing our sport a disservice while keeping opportunities away from kids who need them.
The blueprint to do this on a large scale has been discovered by MICR, and we want to use it to change lives. Let’s work together to win gold medals and change the world.
We constantly rely on the generosity of others. MICR is an IRS 501(c)3 Non-Profit organization through which all donations are tax-deductible. Right now you can help us change lives by having your donation matched, dollar-for-dollar. Use the link below to donate and claim your MICR t-shirt, polo, or hooded sweatshirt.