Women's rugby moves to varsity
One would not know that rugby is a club sport from watching the women's team practicing on the pitch behind Farley Field House. The lady ruggers have seen tremendous success in intercollegiate competition over the past few years, and the dedication and cohesion of the team played a big part in the recent decision to make women's rugby a varsity sport at Bowdoin College.
"The women's rugby program here is very impressive," said Athletic Director Jeffrey Ward. "It's great to see a place like Bowdoin College with such a different kind of women's contact sport."
While the strength of the women's rugby program was central to Ward's decision in changing the team's status, there were many other factors at play. "The recent budget cuts not only reduced the size of the Athletic Department, but it also required a lot of restructuring of our budget," Ward said. "It presented me with an opportunity to make something like this happen."
Ward also cited Title IX compliance as a motivating factor in his decision. "The new status of the women's rugby team makes Bowdoin one of the only true Title IX compliant schools in the country," he said.
Ward noted that the biggest change for the women's team will be financial. Instead of receiving funding through the SAFC, the team will now get its money through the Athletic Department. Mary Beth Mathews, the women's rugby coach, will be employed by the school like any other varsity coach, and the team will have transportation and uniform services on par with other varsity teams. Most of the other operations of the team will remain in place.
While the new status of the team will mean more funding and more access services, Ward was surprised when his decision was met with mostly silent resentment from the team itself. Far from being excited about the decision, many members of the team were upset that varsity status could eliminate the fun and social atmosphere that makes rugby special.
"As a senior who has been playing rugby for four years, I know that what we have on the rugby team is a camaraderie and respect, both on and off the pitch, that I have not found in any other sport I have played," said Courtney Tolmie. "If we work hard, it's possible that we could ensure that 'varsity' is just a label for the team, rather than a change in the atmosphere of the team itself. However, I think that being a varsity sport comes with certain limitations that have the potential to change the culture of the team."
Tolmie is not alone in her reservations. "I have my reservations," said rugger Alexis Goldstein '03. "Rugby is a sport that is wonderful for its inclusiveness and its novelty in college-very few people have played before, and it has a strong sense of tradition. I feel that being varsity puts these qualities at great risk.
More importantly, Goldstein added, was the fact that the team was not consulted about the decision. "We were given the news, we were not asked," she said.
Ward understands these criticisms well. "I should have had more conversations with current players," he admitted. "But this [decision] did not come out of the blue. I have been in conversations with Dean Bradley and the rugby coaches for a while, and this was the right time to make the decision."
Responding to sentiments that the program will change with its new status, Ward assured his critics that he has the best interests of the team in mind. "A lot of the responsibility in a club sport comes from the team," he said, "and I don't want that to change. I want to give the team as many opportunities as I can without changing the sense of community."
Another problem raised by Ward's decision is the fact that the men's rugby team, still a club sport, will still have to share the rugby pitch and rugby equipment with the women's team.
"I have realistic expectations," said Ward, "and nothing is going to change overnight. The women's team currently enjoys a very good relationship with the men's team, and I don't want to disrupt that."
Despite the controversy surrounding his decision, Ward is optimistic about the future of rugby at Bowdoin College. "The difference between club and varsity sports is blurring," he said. "I know that some people are not happy with the Athletic Department's decision, but we have the same goals in mind. I did what I think will be best for the program."
For the current seniors, this decision will have little effect on their rugby careers, which will be ending soon. It remains to be seen how the new change in funding and status will affect the younger classes in the coming years.
"Regardless of how I might feel about the decision, it's going to happen, so we need to deal with it," said first-year rugger Leslie Wittenbraker. "I think there are some definite benefits, but as for now, we need to make sure that we don't let our new title change the team and what it stands for."