Rugby’s golden jubilee

At a college where club sports have to fight for the recognition of the administration, it will certainly be difficult to ignore the presence of the Williams Rugby Football Club (WRFC) this upcoming weekend. Over 200 of the team’s alumni will grace the College’s fields on Friday and Saturday as they celebrate the WRFC’s 50th anniversary. Given the magnitude and importance of this alumni event, it’s a good time to start a discussion not only about the role the rugby team plays on campus but, more importantly, how this role reflects the importance of club sports to the social fabric of the College.

The WRFC was founded in the spring of 1959 by David Coughlin ’61 after he returned from a year abroad in Britain. There, Coughlin had become inspired to create a rugby club at Williams, and the team’s colors, claret and gold, are borrowed from the Huddersfield RFC near Manchester, England. The athletic department loosely supported the club in small ways by letting it use the varsity lacrosse field and by giving it old JV football practice jerseys to use in games. But the team’s financial and spiritual support mostly came from its first coach and a Williamstown community member, Peter Pearson. Both Pearson and Coughlin will be in attendance at this weekend’s events.

Like other club sports on campus, the WRFC has always been a completely student run organization. Its members are responsible for its many activities, which means that they help run practice, schedule games, organize social events and administer the budget. This freedom, which is central to the spirit of the WRFC, has helped created a close-knit group of friends and alumni that cares about the club, its members and the game of rugby. The overwhelming turnout this weekend will be a testament to how deeply the members – both past and present – care about the club. Many alumni have cancelled family trips and booked charter jets to make it to this once-in-a-lifetime event.

So what is it that makes the rugby team and the other club sports so different from other athletic teams on campus? Rugby, like all club sports, welcomes any player of any athletic and skill level. We hold no try-outs, everybody gets to practice and, most importantly, everybody gets to play in games. This inclusiveness, however, does not take away from the competitive aspect of the sport. We compete in Div. II of the New England Rugby Football Union against the University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College, Amherst and the defending national champions, Middlebury. Winning is always the primary objective of the team, but we place just as much emphasis on making all members feel welcome no matter how good they are. It’s the same culture that all club sports foster on campus.

Playing a club sport, particularly rugby, allows students who were varsity athletes in high school and do not want to make the commitment to a varsity sport in college to still have an athletic outlet. At a school where we emphasize the importance of sports, where we drool over the idea of being “really athletic,” club sports provide this opportunity for the 60 percent of campus that doesn’t play a varsity sport.

While the administration has rejected my requests for hard numbers, one truly unique aspect of club sports seems to be their racial and socioeconomic diversity. I would venture to guess that if you were to look at the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of club sports – especially the men’s and women’s rugby teams – in comparison to other sports, you would find club sports showing much higher numbers. This diversity is a direct result of the all-inclusive nature of club sports.

The WRFC’s 50th anniversary has now been brewing for over a year. Alumni Relations has known about the event for months and has provided the team with a commendable amount of support. But the 50th has barely crossed the desks of other parts of the administration. So far, those in Hopkins Hall have only noticed WRFC’s 50th anniversary in terms of the safety problems associated with it. I urge the College to instead see this golden anniversary as a testament to the popularity and perseverance of the rugby team and all other club sports and not just as a potential creator of problems.

While the College has definitely improved its financial support of club sports since 1958, there is still much to be done. The lack of a trainer available to club sports athletes, the low pay of club sports coaches and the lack of sufficient funding allocated to club sports continue to hamper some of the College’s longest standing and most important organizations. I find the fact that the WRFC wears claret and gold, instead of purple and gold, to be a fitting metaphor for of the relationship that club sports share with the administration. Rugby and club sports are an integral part of the social fabric of the College, and yet they take a far back seat to varsity sports. We’ve come to expect only so much from the administration and rely heavily on the efforts of students and alumni to keep our teams going. It’s about time the College not only recognized the importance of club sports, but actually acted positively and productively towards improving its policies towards them.

Jose Pacas ’08 is a political science major from Wyckoff, N.J.