On Thursday, April 9, the Dean’s Office ended the Williams Rugby Football Club (WRFC)’s season early in response to a member of the WRFC sustaining second-degree burns after a party thrown by the club. Last Friday the Dean’s Office informed the team that they had made the decision to end the club’s spring season, eliminating eight games over A and B-side including the John Donovan Memorial Tournament this past weekend and the May 2 Amherst game. The New England Rugby Football Union (NERFU) has also sanctioned the club and is currently conducting its own investigation into the matter. Due to the time constraints of overturning both the College’s disciplinary ruling and NERFU’s sanction before the end of the season, the WRFC has decided not to appeal the punishment.
The player bearing the injury, who would comment only under the condition of anonymity pending NERFU’s investigation, explained that he had remained at the end of rugby gathering thrown the night of April 9 when his shirttail was set afire. Team members were in the act of extinguishing the fire as he reached behind himself to pat the spot with his hand, leaving him with a burn on his left palm. No other eyewitnesses reported seeing the event. On the following morning, he sought medical attention at the Health Center after the swelling persisted. The examining nurse asked the player if the rugby team had precipitated the burn, which he acknowledged to the nurse without providing significant details. The nurse then asked that he do his “best to end whatever tradition led to the burn,” and a second nurse made the same request.
After finding out that the season was publicly canceled, the student said he received a call from a Health Services official explaining how the information from his visit to the Health Center was used in the deans’ decision. The official said that none of his personal information had been given to either Ruth Harrison, director of Health Services, or the administration. However, the nurses were compelled to explain the circumstances of his burn to Harrison since the nature of his situation was threatening to student health. At the time of publication of this article, the Health Center could not be reached for comment.
“[I told them] I knew the Health Center has a job to do,” the player said. “However, I wish we had been given a chance to end the poor practice ourselves as the nurses asked.”
WRFC president Kevin Waite ’09 and co-captains David Aitoro ’09 and Taylor Nelp ’09 met with Dean Merrill and Harry Sheehy, director of Athletics, last Thursday to review the severity of the incident and its ramifications and then again on Friday, at which time the WRFC learned of the cancelled season.
“Through the entire process, we have been completely open with Dean Merrill, Harry Sheehy and the Health Center,” Waite said. “We’ve made it very clear that we have no intention of hiding or obscuring the truth, trusting that honesty would help, rather than hinder, our cause.”
Although the confidentiality provision of the disciplinary process prevented the Dean’s Office from disclosing details, Merrill was able to verify the College’s actions because the matter affects events on a public schedule. “The College ended the men’s rugby club season this spring after learning of team behavior that violated the College’s code of conduct,” Merrill said.
Thus far, the WRFC has not been informed of further administrative inquiries into the identity of the perpetrator or of any additional disciplinary action. “I have a lot of respect for [Merrill’s] job, and I know the rugby team certainly isn’t making her life any easier,” Waite said. “Ultimately, however, I think suspending our season isn’t the right response. As Dean Merrill said, serious infractions deserve serious discipline, and I definitely agree. But I think we could still turn our team’s sincere shame into something very productive and not just punitive.”
The singed shirt is a part of a tradition that has only very infrequently been invoked in recent seasons, according to both Waite and the player involved. Typically worn by a team officer and passed down through the years, the shirt has been burned on previous occasions. The player who was burned stated that in his case, the lighting of the shirt was quite unexpected and far from an act of hazing or common practice; he claims the administration is incorrectly interpreting his case “as a premeditated, almost procedural execution of regular practice.”
“It’s a practice that’s been around for as long as anyone on the team can recall, although there had been very few instances, if any, until this point this year,” Waite said. “It’s a practice the club’s leadership never officially condoned, and seeing it so infrequently, we pretty much forgot about it. Obviously it was a dangerous practice, as infrequently as it may have occurred, and I’m constantly kicking myself for not addressing it earlier.”
NERFU could not be reached for comment on the sanctioning process at the time of publication.