Women’s rugby to gain varsity status in fall

by Kourtney Kawano | 4/5/15 6:35pm


Nearly 37 years after the Dartmouth Women’s Rugby Club was originally founded, the College will now promote the program to varsity status beginning with the next academic year, athletic director Harry Sheehy announced last week. The decision to elevate women’s rugby will raise the total number of varsity sports at the College to 35, with 17 teams for women, 16 for men and two coed teams.

While the decision may have been an unexpected development for some at the College, the announcement was not too surprising for the women’s rugby team, which began its campaign for varsity status last spring when Allison Brouckman ’15, Michaela Conway ’15, Diana Wise ’15 and Becky Marder ’15 submitted a proposal to the athletics department outlining their interest in seeing the program’s transformation into a varsity sport.

The captains, Brouckman said, felt the time was right for the College to include an additional women’s varsity team in the athletics department because of the lack of a full-contact sport for women at the varsity level, whereas men have three: football, hockey and lacrosse.

The team saw the upgrade as something necessary for continued improvement, Wise added.

“We feel very accomplished with all the work we put in,” Wise said. “It’s great to be a part of the legacy and history of women’s rugby and especially Dartmouth women’s rugby.”

Women’s rugby head coach Debra Archambault ’85, who played on the team during her time at the College, said that if anything about the decision was unexpected it was the timing of the announcement. The team, she said, had just returned from tour the day before Sheehy broke the news.

“It’s exciting, and it’s something that I’ve thought about for over 20 years,” Archambault said. “Women’s rugby has developed to the point where it does make sense to be a varsity program for lots of reasons.”

To format their proposal, the team drew from a petition previously submitted by the team’s 2012 captains, Brouckman said. Three years ago, the rugby team requested varsity recognition from the athletic department, which was ultimately denied. At that time, however, the landscape of college women’s rugby looked very different than it does today.

Before 2012, there were only six schools with recognized varsity women’s rugby programs, although none existed in the Ivy League. The list has since grown to include 14 schools from across the country. In 2013, Harvard University became the first Ivy to add women’s rugby to its list of varsity programs, and Brown University followed in 2014.

With the elevation of the College’s women’s rugby club to varsity status, the Ivy League now requires two more colleges to make the transition in order for the sport to become eligible for recognition as an official Ivy League sport.

“We felt that especially with Brown and Harvard as varsity programs, we needed support from the school to keep our program at a really competitive level,” Brouckman said.

Although the proposal submitted last spring detailed the team’s interest in becoming a varsity sport, it also made references to Title IX in order to explain the ways in which the College was not complying with federal laws.

Under Title IX, colleges are required to meet the requirements in three areas. The first area, which measures participation, includes three criteria. Schools must meet at least one of these critera to determine whether they are in compliance with providing equal participation opportunities for both sexes or risk losing federal funding.

The first part tests for proportionality, which states that an institution’s ratio of female to male full-time students should be equal to the ratio of female to male athletes.

According to the athletic department’s annual Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act report, female students accounted for 44.9 percent of varsity athletes during the 2013-2014 school year. As of Fall 2014, 49.1 percent of undergraduates are female.

The ratios, Brouckman said, were not significantly different, but enough so that adding another women’s team would help bring them back into balance.

In order to comply with the proportion aspect of Title IX, many institutions drop men’s sports rather than add varsity programs for women. The College, for example, discontinued several varsity sports, including wrestling, gymnastics and fencing.

Donna Lopiano, president of Sports Management Resources, a consulting company that specializing in sports consulting in educational environments, said it is not accurate to say this is an era of expansion for women’s sports opportunities.

“Division I schools are dropping men’s minor sports and not adding women’s sports so we’ve got to get to that point,” Lopiano said. “Rugby is one of the few women’s sports to have such a diverse population and Dartmouth should be applauded for adding it.”

The second criterion for determining if a school is in compliance with Title IX’s participation requirement evaluates the institution’s history and continued practice of expanding athletic programs for the underrepresented sex.

In 1994, the College’s women’s softball and volleyball teams were elevated to varsity status, which created an equal number of male and female varsity sport programs.

The last aspect of the Title IX participation criteria concerns accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. Title IX also requires schools to meet two other “compliance prongs,” including athletic financial assistance and equal treatment of athletes, in addition to the participation requirement.

“We obviously showed our interest through the proposal,” Brouckman said. “But we wanted to show that we meet not just one but all three prongs of the test and the school agreed.”

In the team’s efforts to achieve varsity recognition, Brouckman and Conway credited senior associate director of athletics for varsity sports Megan Sobel and associate athletic director for club sports and intramurals Joann Brislin as forerunners in aiding the team during the early stages of proposal planning and writing.

“Once we put in the proposal and presented our case, it was out of our hands from then on,” Conway said. “There were tons of voices who were involved, but ours had been put out there and then we took a step back.”

Sobel said upon receiving the proposal, the athletic administration needed to conduct research to determine if women’s rugby would be a good fit at the varsity level for the College.

“Because it’s such a strong club sport here, we felt confident that they could be successful,” Sobel said. “Rugby is also such a growing sport and our hope is that the other Ivies will add it.”

The athletics department will also conduct a national search for a head coach for the varsity women’s rugby team through senior associate athletics director for varsity sports Wendy Bordeau. Archambault said it follows NCAA regulations to conduct a search for a new coach whenever a program is elevated to varsity status. When women’s volleyball and softball gained full varsity status, two new coaches were hired to replace previous coaches before their opening seasons with Division I NCAA status.

Archambault said she is aware of the search and is happy to compete for the job.

“There are good coaches out there, but I think I am the best person for the job,” Archambault said. “I have really good plans for a varsity team, and I look forward to transitioning our team and helping them make good decisions as they move forward into varsity status.”

With varsity status, Sobel said the rugby team will have access to a budget allocated by the College to aid in the transition along with the rugby team’s friends account to pay for basic equipment, uniforms, traveling and the cost of recruiting.

In last school year’s EADA report, the College reported that 60.3 percent of all athletic-related operating expenses were used by men’s teams, compared to the 39.7 percent used by women’s teams.

Since the announcement last week, the team said they have received an outpouring of support from the athletics department and the student body.

“We have to credit the administrators in the athletic department as well as our coaches, our alumni, club sports and the men’s rugby team,” Brouckman said. “They’ve all been extremely supportive for the whole year.”

The men’s rugby team is not looking to become a varsity sport because of their satisfaction as a premier club team, Brouckman and Conway said.

“There also isn’t the same push Ivy League-wide or nationwide for men to transition to varsity rugby as we’ve seen on the women’s side,” Conway said.

College women’s rugby itself still has a long way to go before it can remove its classification as an “emerging sport,” which, according to the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics, is defined as a sport “that is intended to help schools provide more athletics opportunities for women, more sport sponsorship options for institutions and help that sport achieve NCAA championship status.”

In order to hold a national championship, however, a minimum of 40 institutions must offer women’s rugby at the varsity level. The upgrade to varsity makes the College the 14th institution with membership in the National Collegiate Varsity Women’s Rugby Association, which includes Eastern Illinois University, Bowdoin College, Quinnipiac University, Notre Dame College and Sacred Heart University.

Colorado College Rugby Football Club head coach and co-founder of VarsityRugby.org, an organization dedicated to providing educational resources for the expansion of interscholastic and intercollegiate rugby, Amy Rusert said collegiate women’s rugby is certainly reaching a tipping point, making it possible for an NCAA Championship in the near future.

“Patience has been a virtue for a lot of us in this process,” Rusert said. “It seems to have had an exponential effect when one program in a particular area adds rugby, others will be in the process of adding.”

As far as the Ivy League goes, Conway estimates it will take three years before the conference has five institutions with varsity level women’s rugby teams.

“It’s excited to be a forefront of varsity rugby,” Conway said. “That puts us as a leader in helping to shape what NCAA rugby will look like and what Ivy League Championships for rugby will look like.”

In accordance with NCAA regulations, the women’s rugby team’s varsity status will not be put into effect until July 1, which is also when the athletic department will announce the team’s head coach. Until then, the team will look to its spring season and defending its Ivy League title in sevens.

This past weekend, the women competed at a tournament hosted by the University of New Hampshire with two sides of sevens. The A team beat Plymouth State University 28-0, Colby College 45-10 and UNH 27-12, before losing to Norwich University. The rugby team will spend time resting after a tough weekend before travelling to face conference rival Brown University on Saturday.