When the final whistle blew on November 22, 2015 in the historical first national all-NCAA Rugby championship, Quinnipiac bested Army 24-19. I ran across the mud covered field in Providence RI, at Brown and slid directly into a pile of my student-athletes screaming at the top of their lungs. The crowd was small consisting of mostly families, friends and fans all sporting their "I Believe" tees to show support for their Bobcats. For so many sports, their firsts are over but for NCAA Rugby, they are just beginning.
I am not a coach who hugs her athletes or staff but on this day I broke both of my rules. I took photos with our players, hugged my father and was congratulated by a few administrators who witnessed their NCAA D-I Rugby program achieve its historic accomplishment. Prior to this day, Quinnipiac University had never won a national championship in any sport.
As we were handed our medals, my mind briefly shifted back to the days when my father and I never missed a home Navy Football game. I loved the fans, the respect, the tradition and only until I became an adult did I begin to acknowledge and ponder the way we worshipped our male football players like super heroes. Unfortunately by comparison, although special, our historic national championship day was far from celebrated more than any average Saturday for the Midshipmen of Navy Football.
Among the positive celebrations within our program and within our families the sad reality is that we are miles away from valuing and showcasing our female athletes in the same fashion as our male athletes.
Truthfully, I had envisioned the national championship outcome more than 100 times since I accepted the position as head coach in 2010. The idea of having to build any sport from scratch with a handful of athletes who had zero experience in rugby and turning the program into a national contender was exciting. Accomplishment of the mission was inevitable as far as I was concerned. Why do I say inevitable? Because every coach I ever had empowered me to feel the confidence that my goals would never escape achievement if I made that choice.
Aside from confidence I must point out that the authenticity and attraction of my experience lies within the bigger picture of the effect rugby has and will have on women's athletics.
My coaching circles and relationships within intercollegiate athletics consist of some of the most sought after leadership talent spread across all sports and Divisions in the NCAA. Admittedly, I am not just a rugby coach, I am a sports professional. Regularly I am approached by members of the sports community and asked how our program has been able to achieve this almost-overnight success.
While there's a plethora of answers that contribute to our accomplishments as a program, one thing has been consistent since the day I realized the challenge I had ahead of me. Surprisingly, this challenge has zero to do with teaching technical rugby skill, recruiting athletes or ordering uniforms. The challenge I am referring to is simply that of being not only a new women's sport on a private school campus but a women's sport, period.
A NEW SPORT ON CAMPUS= NO FRIENDS From the starter gun, our program was destined to fit in absolutely nowhere. Many in the rugby community met us with skepticism and criticism of our brand of NCAA Rugby with athletic scholarships, field space, financed transportation, full time coaches, trainers, strength programs etc. Our plan was to keep our heads down, build our brand and quietly creep onto the national stage, and so we did.
The NCAA leadership and intercollegiate athletic community could not fathom allowing a full contact sport for women to sit at the cool kid table without arduous red tape. As a result, our sport is currently a placeholder classified within the "NCAA Emerging Sport" category. Our QU campus media, athletes, coaches, professors, staff and administrators originally struggled to imagine how a new program like ours was worth reporting on, supporting or even acknowledging us as anything more than a group of women who were thrown together as the result of a Title IX suit. Fortunately, our adversity and doubters have been a fuel to our success engine. As a program we developed a determination not to be treated or regarded as second class citizens and it continues to lead us to a position of strength.
As a program, our goal was never solely about winning, yet we won anyway. Our intention was not to spend our time throwing social media stones at the local news outlets who consistently ignore our progress and report on men's sports who have not achieved half of our success in double the amount of time. However some days, this is what it feels like to be a Bobcat.
Our program's mission began with a focus on shaping our culture. The idea that we could build a rugby team before we learned to be just a team was absurd to me. As I realized rugby was the easy part, our mission morphed into creating and presenting new learning opportunities for anyone in our radius who could possibly be touched by our presence and participation in this great game. To this day we still brush off those who doubt us, raise up the ones who support us and reach out to those who silently pull for us to win the campus war on equal coverage, recognition and basic consideration and care for the female population of our university.
Following our program's return from the national championship, many of my players proudly sported national championship gear around campus. Our first team meeting back after winter break I inquired as to the level of interest they had garnished from their peers and professors. While some were congratulatory toward our national champions, many players reported that their professors had no idea QU had even competed at nationals and some even questioned the validity of our accolade.
To be clear, as an Emerging Sport there are only 16 NCAA programs in the nation. QU Rugby's competition is strictly other NCAA teams. So many of our fellow sports forget that despite the popularity of mainstream sports in NCAA athletics, ALL of them began right where we are. The NCAA began conducting a single division Women's Soccer Championship tournament in 1982 with a 12-team tournament and today women's soccer has well over 40 D-I programs. Quinnipiac Rugby was the best of the 16 NCAA programs in the nation competing which makes us national champs, period.
INEQUALITY IS ACROSS THE BOARD IN WOMEN'S SPORTS...EVEN THE POPULAR ONES
As I attempt to keep the spectrum broad to apply to all women's sports, I do not write any of this assuming that lessened value of our female athletes is isolated to rugby. Recently, the University of Minnesota Women's Ice Hockey captured the NCAA National championship. Post game pictures included the team wearing their "NCAA Men's Frozen Four" labeled hats in all their press photos.
While the outcry was brief, a few Twitter accounts whispered of discontent amongst the Minnesota athletes themselves. The fact remains that even women's ice hockey as a full NCAA Championship sport, has its second class status compared to its male counterparts in treatment and recognition. Granted, the excitement of the national championship win was probably so overwhelming for Minnesota that it's possible the players did not even notice the error until after the fact.
Even so, this mistake, which would most likely never occur in the reverse scenario where the men receive the women's hats, was never addressed by the coaches or administration of Minnesota women's ice hockey. When we pass up opportunities to shine a light on these kinds of discrepancies as leaders, this is a cultural and institutional fail to lobby on our female athletes' behalf.
Not convinced? Well, the hats are simply one example as this year the CBS affiliate Turner, purchased the rights to the women's ice hockey tournament and then didn't even broadcast it. The NCAA was kind enough to stream the event in a buried link online. This is where the harshest critics of women's sports need to step back and realize that it's impossible for our events to climb in the ratings if the audience is never given the opportunity to tune in.
My point in drawing these parallels is simple. When we as leaders fail not only to recognize or at least assist our female athletes in recognizing disparity and crafting a response, we are setting them up for accepting less and tolerating more in the real world.
EMPOWERING ATHLETES BUILDS YOUR ARMY FOR CHANGE We run ourselves ragged, especially as female coaches trying to figure out ways to motivate our programs when many times, we are shorthanded for resources or staff. Instead of exhausting yourself, recognize and use adversity to fuel your athletes. If you coach a sport other than men's basketball or football, chances are you need not look far for your adversity.
When press release after press release focuses on the footballs and basketballs of your institutions, it is no wonder why the magic of those Navy football games I referred to may never touch your NCAA cross country runner, golfer, swimmer, rower etc. So much of what our athletes truly desire is to be valued and seen so why do we deny them opportunities to address equality issues that are right in front of them every day?
If you are that coach who suffers in silence within your athletic department and are constantly asking the same questions, it's time to take a breath and teach your athletes the value of "the ask".
You can attend all the conferences and workshops you want to share commonality in your departmental frustrations but this won't create or prompt change unless you learn first how to speak to your athletes on the topic. Whether it's 5 minutes before practice where you have your culture conversation or the last ten minutes of your team meeting, if you are not periodically checking the pulse of your team's own self value you are missing a vital step in molding their development.
Intercollegiate related conflict and athletic experiences are the dress rehearsal platforms for preparing your athletes to enter the workforce. Research shows that your female athletes are already predisposed to a society that will pay them less than their male colleagues in the same job. When you light the pathway for them to practice "the ask" from their administration in their own athletic spaces, you are strengthening their confidence and bulking up their willpower which will lead them to ask for that raise, speak up in the board room and more importantly to speak out if others attempt to marginalize their contributions.
YOUR CAMPUS IS FULL OF EXAMPLES, RECOGNIZE THEM, TALK ABOUT THEM I sat one day listening to our on-campus tours in a common area where each guide stops near our locker room and offers the group a brief overview of QU athletics. Every single tour out of the 15 groups habitually advertised only the men's ice hockey program as "our biggest and most successful sport" despite the fact that our rugby program is a national champion, QU women's ice hockey is always a top national contender, women's basketball had two unparalleled winning streaks that have lead to two consecutive post season national tournament appearances, and field hockey, women's tennis and cross country win honors like it's their job.
If you wonder as a coach at your school, why your successful program is muted to the general student or faculty population, perhaps this example may prompt you to investigate what messages are actually being sent to every incoming student via your admissions office. This could very well spark some much needed change or at the very least an examination of institutional marketing messages.
YOUR FEMALE ATHLETES ARE RECEIVING MESSAGES OF SEXISM REGULARLY While many view our generation of athletes as entitled or quicker to talk back then we were at that age, the reality is that we are dealing with an audience that craves and thrives on information because they are bombarded with it 24/7. The days of sitting at dinner trading unsolvable brain teasers and trivia questions have been killed off by the instant google search.
The full-explanation answers our athletes are accustomed to are all available within the top 3 internet searches causing wonderment to become extinct. We tend to see this as a weakness but our athletes are absolutely capable of becoming sponges if we as coaches are willing to be open, thoughtful and honest with divulging, in moderation, the existing struggles or needs of our programs.
Recently in her music class at Quinnipiac, one of my athletes' professors was engaged in a comparison where the tail end of his statement included: "You know...it would be like if Quinnipiac actually won a national championship."
Hearing this, my player politely corrected him by pointing to her national championship t-shirt and confirming that QU Rugby had already achieved this feat for the university.
Rather than conceding to his mistake he responded with: "Oh, well no, you know what I mean is if a REAL sport won the national championship for Quinnipiac."
Considering that there will always be ignorance out there even in higher education, more concerning to me than this professor's statement was my athlete's dilemma in crafting a response. I asked her how she handled the situation and she replied, "I was so shocked I didn't know what to say."
As a coach, I was disappointed but again, it was a prime teaching moment to discuss with my player and the team how we respond to this kind of language and disregard for their existence as a true NCAA program. Keep in mind, while we are empowering our female athletes, we must be steadfast in our effort to spell out the distinction between what our athletes deserve and what they are required to work for. We can continue to encourage our female athletes to be grateful for their opportunity without promoting complacency where they simply accept being grateful as their only reward and recognition.
THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY DID NOT END IN 1972...IT BEGAN Somewhere between Title IX's passage in 1972 and today, our society has forgotten or has become unable to recognize that we have much more work to do. We cannot expect our athletes who are decades removed from the law to naturally view this movement as anything more than a history lesson. Title IX and its application in education is all around us. If you do not talk to your athletes about this and discuss it openly, we cannot complain about our isolation in fighting battles within our institutions. Your athletes are the paying customers and a constituency that holds more weight than your lone voice ever could.
HELPING AN ATHLETE SEE HER VALUE IS PART OF THE JOB While it took 5 years to achieve QU Rugby's national championship, our program and our athletes look forward to a day when their accomplishments are appreciated and celebrated equal to their male athlete counterparts. While there are no fan buses, local news stations or fortunately, no on-campus riots occurring in the name of our victory or defeat, for now, the women of Quinnipiac Rugby respect their understanding of Title IX and are actively using their voices to combat inequality in other areas of their lives.
Milling somewhere around the epicenter of your job description is the responsibility to build stronger, more confident women to send out to the world in four years. When armed with the right knowledge, your team is a readily available outlet of soldiers who are far more capable to handle battle then we give them credit for. At the end of the day, the opportunities you illuminate them to in standing up for themselves, will produce far more lasting value than a national championship ever could.