A recent decision by the Colby administration to stop funding its men’s and women’s club rugby programs has sparked a controversy on the Mules’ campus.

In a meeting on November 19, the teams were told that they would not be funded after the Spring 2014 season. Players said the announcement came as a surprise.

“We were all expecting an apology because they had messed up the beginning of our season, essentially forcing us to forfeit our first games,” said Kaitlin Fitzgerald, a sophomore on Colby’s women’s team, in an interview with the Orient via Skype. “Instead, they told us they were cutting both teams after the conclusion of the spring season.”

In response, the school’s administration has proposed that the teams raise a $2.5 million endowment which, theoretically, could perpetually fund the team off the interest. 

Mac Nichols, a senior on the men’s team, called that proposal “extremely unreasonable” in an interview via Skype. 

A larger issue

The decision comes at a time when many small schools are grappling with rising costs associated with rugby teams, thanks to increasingly competitive college leagues and increasing awareness of the many safety risks associated with the sport.

“At all NESCAC schools, rugby clubs have always been an issue,” said Nichols. “They’re an expensive affair and they can be especially dangerous for people who are involved.”

However, there are also new financial pressures. 

“Historically, club sports were really regional,” said Allen Delong, director of Bowdoin’s student life which partially oversees the funding for the men’s club rugby team. “Suddenly, we have club teams that go to nationals. This is totally new and has evolved really quickly.”

Colby’s two teams are currently funded by the school as a single club. The administration has argued that ensuring the safety of players would require hiring paid coaches and athletic trainers to be at every game and practice, which would increase the cost of the program from about $18,000 to $115,000 annually.

In a post on Colby’s Facebook page, Lori Kletzer, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, wrote that $115,000 is “an amount that is difficult to justify when weighed against spending levels for other club sports as well as overall College priorities.” 

Colby’s budget for all student clubs is currently $295,000.

“As with any collision sport, the appropriate and responsible oversight of club rugby demands high levels of coaching and medical support, particularly since our understanding of the injury risks has increased steadily over the past few years,” Kletzer wrote.

Colby is one of the first schools to eliminate its rugby program for “purely financial reasons, and not punitive ones,” according to Tim Badmington, another senior on the men’s team. 

He said that the administration sees itself as being “on the cutting edge—the deans think that every school will have to make a decision like this to deal with the rising costs of the sport eventually.”

‘Bowdoin Rugby Forever’

At Bowdoin, several circumstances give both the men’s and women’s teams more financial security than Colby’s squads.

Women’s rugby is a varsity sport, so its funding comes entirely from the athletic department. The men’s team, along with a few other sports such as crew, functions as “hybrids”—club sports receiving some funding and services from the Department of Athletics—including access to trainers, which is not the case at Colby.

“Bowdoin made the decision several years ago to support men’s rugby in our training room, given the contact nature of the sport, so we’re fortunate that we’re well-positioned to support the sport,” said Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan.

The Student Activities Funding Committee (SAFC) generally pays for administrative costs like association dues, tournament fees, equipment, and coaches, while the athletic department funds travel and provides trainers.

While the proportion of cost varies from year to year, Ryan said that the SAFC and the athletic department generally support the team “relatively equally.”

“Overall, our funding situation has been great,” wrote David Dietz ’14, a captain of the men’s rugby team, in an email to the Orient.

Bowdoin Rugby Forever, an endowment funded by alumni, also provides financial support for the men’s team, allowing them to cover costs for things like tournaments or equipment not covered by the school.

“Currently that money isn’t really being touched,” wrote Dietz. “It can be used if we need something right away, but it is really there as an investment for the future of the club.”

Colby’s response

While players at Colby acknowledge the safety concerns about the sport, they are upset about a lack of transparency and flexibility from the administration.

“This was a surprise to the students, this was a surprise to alumni, this was a surprise to our coaches and our officers, and to people within the administration,” Nichols said. He also noted that Colby has not released a specific breakdown of which rugby costs would rise, if the teams were to continue functioning.

“A lot of alumni have expressed that they would have been all up for it to help raise the funds to continue the rugby team, but nobody was contacted when the team was cut—it was just an abrupt cut with no solution-seeking efforts,” added Fitzgerald.

Dean Kletzer did not respond to the Orient’s request for comment.

The response to the announcement on Colby’s campus was powerful. Over 1,100 students—more than half of the school’s student body—signed a petition protesting the decision the day after it was announced. Another 4,000 signatures have been amassed on an online petition since then.
“We were actually very pleasantly surprised by the support on campus,” said Badmington.

“There’s been a lot of alumni pressure to the point where Dean Kletzer has actually had to get automated responses tailored to rugby inquiries,” said Nichols. “At least as far as the Colby community is concerned, it’s an issue.”

Rugby players at Bowdoin, too, are disappointed. 

“Our team is sad to see Colby’s go,” wrote Dietz. “They’ve been a fun and competitive rival with us.”

Administrators at Colby agreed to follow-up meetings with the teams, where they proposed the fundraising. Nichols said that the teams have not started a fundraising effort, hoping instead for a more tenable solution.

“Nobody thinks it’s fair that they put all the onus on us,” said Badmington. “We’re not professional fundraisers. We’re a bunch of 22-year-old rugby players.”