The Cornell women's rugby team in a scrum, getting ready to play.

Photo by Judith Suzuki

The Cornell women's rugby team in a scrum, getting ready to play.

May 8, 2016

POOR | Cornell’s Ragtag Army

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Until recently, the muddy fields of U.S. women’s rugby have been largely uncharted. Women’s teams have developed since the mid 20th century and gradually gained popularity with players and fans. Particularly at the collegiate level, U.S. women ruggers (rugby players) are proliferating. Escalating interest in women’s rugby has prompted several Ivy League universities to elevate their women’s club rugby teams to the NCAA varsity level, concomitantly vesting players with the resources, support and privileges of varsity athletes.

Last Tuesday evening, 11 players from the Cornell women’s rugby team met with me to discuss their mission of transforming their sports club into a varsity team. From early in the interview, the players’ giggles, nicknames and light teasing exuded a sense of supportive camaraderie. Their strong-held passion for CWRFC became profusely clear, and their gushing articulations of the transformative space created by the welcoming energies of their eclectic teammates wholly illustrated the importance of the rugby community on campus. They particularly expressed that the collective shattering of heteronormativity, body positivity and inclusion of all genders crafts a dynamic group bond; they thrive, as community members and athletes, from the multiplicity of perspectives that they encounter and work with as a team.  Community trust and closeness hold heady significance in the sport — rugby scrums are held up by precarious patchworks of interlocking bodies, whose safety depend on the adjoining entanglement of teammates. On and off the field, the women’s rugby team engenders a profoundly allied force — a strength that has propelled them in their efforts towards attaining varsity status.

CWRFC, while competing against many of the Ivy League’s newly minted varsity ruggers, remains in the disenfranchising position as a club team, and therefore, lacks many of the fundamental resources and facilities that their competitors deploy in training. Without the same advantages, CWRFC is precluded from advancing at the rate of their competitors, and the Cornell women are left in a self-guided scramble to assemble facilities, training, transportation and funding on their own. The players articulated bureaucratic struggles that threaten the viability and development of the team. Former president Alison Farrish ’16 affirms that the University administration — while sympathetic to the ruggers’ desire to progress — has implied that Cornell cannot expend resources to bring another team up to the varsity level and if the ruggers wish to become varsity, they will have to accumulate the funds, facilities and support through their own efforts.

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The Cornell women’s rugby team is undertaking a challenging path towards becoming a varsity team. This was taken by Liz Rosen Ditonto ’87, mother of co-captain Alexa Ditonto ’17.

Currently, as a recognized “sports club,” the women ruggers fall under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Dean of Students and receive funding from the Students Activities Funding Commission (SAFC), like any other student club. Located in Tier 2 of SAFC’s funding allocations, the ruggers obtain a budget of $5,000 per semester, which tapers quickly as transportation, lodging, coaching salary and facilities expenses add up. The players offset their budget through fundraising — selling CWRFC merch to friends and fans and soliciting donations from alumni. The team collects a small portion of dues from each player, but as co-captain Mara Jacobs ’17 said, “we don’t want money to be an issue of why women can’t play on the team,” emphasizing the team’s commitment to accessibility for players of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Unfortunately, president Jade Algarín ’17 explained that development of the team budget has conferred less consistent streams of income compared to the men’s rugby team. She speculated that the discrepancies in donations for the women’s team stem, in part, from the long-held tradition of men’s rugby at Cornell — a prized legacy that inspires alumni to ensure the men’s team’s longevity — and, in part, because, “men on average make more money,” so alumni from the women’s team, perhaps, have smaller incomes to share. Algarín concluded that while the women’s ruggers have investigated the possibility of moving to Tier 1 of SAFC funding, the requisite activities attached to Tier 1 funding would pose increasingly daunting impediments to a team whose time is spread exceedingly thin with self-management obligations.

Beyond the expanse of time and energy exhausted in their efforts to fundraise, which detracts from time spent training, budgetary deficiencies encumber the team through a superfluity of infrastructural shortages that threaten the players’ safety, health and growth. Rugby has a degree of physical intensity that renders players highly susceptible to injury. While the CWRFC players laughed about generalizations of ruggers as imperviously durable stock, they also conceded that injuries have affected many of their teammates. Therefore, they acknowledged the significance of practicing as a team and attaining finesse in technical moves in order to reduce the players’ risk of injury. However, unsteady access to fields and training spaces has deterred the ruggers’ development of skills. In the winter, the team practices indoors, but they forgo many vital training routines because Cornell does not have a safe indoor space for tackling practice. Farrish recalled scheduling indoor practice spaces as a “nightmare,” stressing that the lack of facilities impedes the team’s work of “getting people ready and trained to properly tackle safely.” Rachel Vanicek ’19 said, “My main concern is always the safety and the health of the athletes on our team, and getting access to our field, to be able to fully practice tackling in the spring ends up being a challenge that directly affects our safety at tournaments and through the rest of the games. We play all year round, and so we always need to be able to have access to practice tackling in a safe environment — to practice scrumming so that we avoid those injuries at all costs.”

But even when Ithaca’s distinctively inclement weather wanes, the team’s access to the rugby field varies. A forbidding pit of mud spans the center of the field. While the ruggers extolled the rush of competing under heightened challenges like turbulent weather and slushy fields, they explained that mud often precludes them from training. The conditions of the field risk the players’ safety; in addition to the slippery sludge, maintenance workers frequently extract rocks from the ruggers’ murky grasslands. Furthermore, tearing up the sparse grass persisting through the mud pit threatens the lifespan of the field, which, on the ruggers’ tight budget, is not a gamble they can take.

Understandably, Cornell’s varsity players have priority access to the University’s athletic facilities. As Farrish affirmed, “Ideally, we’d like to go into the gym and have team lifts and work out together and make sure everyone’s stronger and safer, but there’s just not enough resources to go around for the club teams to use Bartels and the nice facilities.” While Cornell’s general access gyms may seem like a viable alternative for weight training, Algarín emphasized that many players cannot afford the cost of the gym membership and CWRFC’s budget lacks the elasticity to cover the expense. The dearth of training facilities posits the team at heightened risk of unpreparedness for competition, which, in a high contact and high injury sport, decreases the safety of their game.

Transportation and lodging costs inflict further impediments. The modest SAFC allocation often cannot cover transport to tournaments in other states. The players become drivers, offering their own cars and gas money. Jacobs contended, “It’s really exhausting … Driving six hours to a game, playing a game and then driving back after getting beaten up a little bit is tiring and not that safe.” She expressed anxiety that fatigue induces a loss of dexterity and a concurrent reduction of safety in competition, and explained that lack of funds for lodging while traveling also forces the team to crash on the floors of friends’ homes. She asserted that even if CWRFC expended money for bus transportation, the haphazard accommodations “really affect your game because you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you’re not in your game mode, because you’re tired. I know it seems so trivial, but those are really big components to having a safer, better game.”

The scarcity of funds also imposes prohibitive restrictions on obtaining baseline concussion training and hiring a trainer. USA Rugby issues regulations regarding concussions, which mandate that, “If a player shows symptoms of concussion before, during or after a match, that player must be removed from play immediately.” The guidelines also underline compulsory evaluation of the injured player by “appropriate medical staff.” Not only do the Cornell women practice and compete without supervision of any sports medical staff, but they also lack the funds to learn how to recognize the symptoms of a concussion on their own. Concussions can instigate permanent damage to the brain if untreated — the derisory lack of preventative safeguards in Cornell women’s rugby imperils the players’ long-term health and wellbeing and evidences glaring gaps in fundamental University support.

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The Cornell women’s rugby team poses for a selfie. (Photo by Augusta Zhang)

Frustrating insufficiencies in healthcare at Gannett Health Services compounds the increased risks caused by the lack of facilities, trainers and transportation. Algarín narrates her experience of the insufficient services at Gannett: “It’s really frustrating as an athlete when you go to Gannett.com and there’s a ‘for athletes’ tab, and you click it, and there’s nothing there that will actually service us because we’re not NCAA athletes. When we are the only representation for Cornell and our basic medical needs [aren’t met] it’s hard to deal with. It’s hard to be a club sport and say that you have the full support of Cornell when something as basic and as crucial — especially when you’re in an academically intense environment like Cornell — as not having the necessary care when you have something as serious as a concussion is really frustrating.” Her teammates murmured their agreement with her summary of, what they labeled, a discriminatory repercussion of their liminal position as more than a club but less than a varsity team.

Vanicek shared a personal account of exacerbating an injury during a long waiting period as she sought healthcare on campus: “After Ivy champs I had a hip injury, and I had to wait four days for my Gannett appointment, like limping around campus. And then, they were like, ‘Oh you need to go to PT,’ so I had to wait another week to get into PT.” Budget constraints deprive the ruggers from taking advantage of preventative measures like increased safety training and/or hiring an on-site trainer, thereby heightening the risk of the game. At the same time, the university fails to offer suitable healthcare for athletes engaged in a high contact sport. The ruggers indicated mounting agitation with precarious cracks in support, which consequently threaten their health.

As the players vie with Cornell administration for varsity status, they have organized themselves in grassroots style, compensating for breaches in institutional infrastructure through fortifying a tradition of self-managing a competitive collegiate team. CWRFC currently employs a part-time coach, but Jacobs says, “Mainly it’s up to me and [co-captain] Alexa when it comes to planning and designing the practices, and on the one hand that’s a safety issue, because we only know so much about the sport and on the other hand, it’s like we are still learning and we can only impart so much knowledge.” In recent years, there has been high turnover of coaches, leaving the team without guidance for an entire semester. Even when they do have staff, the coaches can only commit a sliver of the necessary time because the salary is so low. As Farrish articulated, many of CWRFC’s competitors train under the leadership of world-class coaches, and thus, “The varsity teams have a real edge because they do have these full-time salaried coaches where it’s their only job to run the team and think about the team’s strategy.”

Furthermore, Anne Repka ’16 alleged, “Since we are a club team, we’re entirely student managed, so the people on our team can’t just be athletes, they also have to be booking the buses, booking the tournaments and booking the hotels, organizing the fundraising events so we can become a varsity team. So that’s a lot of extra hours outside of the six hours a week that we have practice and the like five hours a week that we might have a game.” The women have to organize carpools to East Hill Plaza where their field is located, which, Vanicek argued, takes “easily an hour or two before” practice in order to locate players and coordinate rides. Meagan Davis ’18 called Cornell’s rugby team a “ragtag army,” contrasting CWRFC’s self-organization with the polished uniforms, chartered buses and esteemed coaches of their Ivy competitors.

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The team plays in prom dresses. (Photo by Alison Farrish)

The ruggers hope to give up their administrative and coaching roles if they secure varsity status. Four women’s rugby teams within the Ivy League have recently jumped from club to varsity level, offering a glimmer of optimism to CWRFC’s prospects. In my mind, to withhold resources for the Cornell ruggers, as many universities’ programs rapidly expand, seems antithetical to Cornell’s pervading penchant for contending competitively with the other Ivies. But with an athletic budget already stretched tightly across 37 varsity teams, Athletic Director Andy Noel indicated that unfortunately, money (or, lack thereof) would be the most decisive factor. The most prospective avenue for the ruggers, he asserted, would entail crowd-sourcing funds with alumni, families and friends.

And yet, in a perplexing contradiction, Cornell generates revenue through the sale of rugby-related merchandise at the Cornell store — revenue that CWRFC never sees. Annika Tomson ’18 said, “We’re the only non-varsity team that has sports apparel sold in the Cornell store … There’s a lot of other sports have that apparel and more, but all of the other sports are varsity teams.” She summarized, claiming that Cornell administration is “making money off of us but we’re not getting any help.” Algarín echoed her sentiments, asserting “There is more awareness of rugby — I think Cornell is just capitalizing on that … but it seems very unfair when we’re struggling to pay the bills.” Vanicek outlined the maddening double standard of Cornell profiting off the rising popularization of rugby while at the same time denying the team assistance with their financial woes.

Some players mentioned that the University’s blind-eye to the ruggers’ needs — in spite of the profits accrued from rugby merchandise — distanced their sense of pride in Cornell. Farrish described her sense that, “It does feel a little bit like Cornell is letting us go out into the world with their name on it, but not giving us the resources that these other schools have.” Algarín agreed, saying, “I don’t think when I play rugby that I am playing for Cornell. The only people at the end of the day that I feel obligated to fulfill their expectations are my fellow rugby players. I don’t feel beholden to the university at all.”

While frustrated with the administration’s deficient support in their quest towards induction into the NCAA, the women ruggers expressed immense pride in their game and devotion to the CWRFC community. Vanicek stated, “Being on the women’s rugby here is the strongest sense of community I’ve ever experienced.” Citing the mentorship, goofy group dynamic and team enthusiasm, many players reiterated Vanicek’s feelings. Algarín, without hesitation, claimed, “I couldn’t imagine being able-bodied and not playing rugby,” and Tomson said, “I love this team so much … and even though we’re having these struggles with the administration, I’m still very proud to go to tournaments, to go to Ivy Champs, and to play these teams, and represent our school.” The sanctity of the CWRFC community — proffered by the inclusive spirit and unifying experience of persisting through Cornell’s trials — has become central to the motivation driving the ruggers to fight for varsity. As Jacobs said, “One of the biggest reasons why I want to go varsity is so that we can really represent Cornell to the standard that it deserves.”

If you’re inspired by CWRFC’s self-fueled movement to attain varsity status, the players highlighted many ways you can support them. Volunteer your administrative, budgetary or web design skills. As a self-run team, the athletes would love to cut back on the time they spend doing managerial tasks in order to devote more of their time to rugby. Donate, and mobilize other donors. Go to their games. Support for their team shows campus interest in women’s rugby and builds incentive for the administration to grant them varsity status. Get to know the ruggers, and hear their story in their own words. Jacobs captured the profound bearing of the women’s rugby on Cornell campus: “We’re a statement … This sport, and who we are, and how we play the game, and the type of people who are involved, it’s like, we are a statement of what sports should be for women.” Get the word out about this subversive “ragtag army” of women ruggers, and help sustain a quirky, self-run and indispensable Cornell community.

Kate Poor is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at ksp57@cornell.edu. Triple Jump appeared alternate Mondays this semester. This is its final installment.

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