Why the University of California’s “Demotion” Might Save Collegiate Rugby

Allow me to start off this post by bastardizing and paraphrasing Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

I have come here today, not to bury Cal Rugby, but to praise them.

Now on to the post…

It happened a few weeks back.  That seismic shake you might have felt? It was the quake of thousands of jaws hitting the floor simultaneously as it was reported that the University of California Rugby Team was losing its varsity status and becoming a “varsity club” sport (whatever the hell that means). While “varsity club” sounds like a copout, it does move Cal Rugby closer to nearly all of the other collegiate teams located around the U.S.

I discussed this previously on the alpha-test-episode of the new Rugby SuperShow a few weeks back – asking what the impact would be on not just Cal, but the rest of the U.S. collegiate rugby universe.

After thinking this over, I think that this will hurt the University of California Rugby Club in the near future. But it will benefit many of the other collegiate programs in the United States – possibly even saving the collegiate ranks in the long run and help spread the rugby gospel. There are a lot of places in the “flyover country” (as we who do not live on the coasts are less than flatteringly known) where rugby does/would have a great cult following.  Since many people follow their local college team, or alma mater, once introduced to rugby they might be more interested in following their team, leading to more support (including possibly financial).

While it’s nice to have a handful of dominant teams across the country, having a situation where one team always wins the national championship (and Cal’s 20, 25, 40, 100, a googolplex, collegiate rugby titles is a testament to this) will make for very boring college rugby in the U.S., unless you live in Berkeley.

Is this fair for Cal? That’s a really good question – it appears that the team isn’t being ejected for monetary reasons, or for any negative actions of the players (who have usually conducted themselves much more professionally than some professional athletes).  According to Cal coach Jack Clark, it might have been because of Title 9 – a federal law that was created to increase the number of women’s athletes in college.  While this might be true to a certain extent, women’s collegiate rugby is already making inroads into the NCAA, and is considered an “emerging sport” while the men’s teams are still mostly relegated to club status, which is problematic when Cal tries to argue that they deserve special treatment in the USA Rugby-sphere. 

Something along these lines happened previously at my alma mater (and current workplace) the University of New Mexico.  The team lost some of its funding from the state government after a report in the media about the team receiving state funds, which led to the team’s “GM” (for lack of a better word), who was also a state legislator, to lose reelection. 


Budgetary Differences

On a recent episode of American Rugby News’ “Collegetalk” podcast Jeremy Ognall mentioned that Cal was getting preparing to build a new $320 million football stadium, while having to shear $10 million off of the athletic budget.  One thing that appeared to be unclear, to me at least, was where the money is coming from.  If the University of California is like the university that I work at then this is really like comparing apple and hamburgers…

Where I work there are two separate funds for a situation like this, an instruction and general fund – where much of the money to run the university comes from, and a capital projects fund – where money designated for construction projects comes from. You’re not allowed, by law, to divert money from one fund to the other.

Should Cal Rugby figure out a way to convince the students to divert money from the general fund, or increase student fees to support their team, that one thing.  But to say that “Cal has all of this money to build a stadium but can’t keep their rugby team” isn’t quite fair.

Besides, it sounds like Cal has quite a sound financial base as it is.


Cal’s Sweet Rugby Lucre…

Another argument that’s being forwarded is that Cal shouldn’t have to lose their varsity status because they bring in money to the Cal athletic department. Which is a wonderful thing for the Cal athletic department.

This positive bank account has allowed Cal rugby to stay at the top of the collegiate ranks at the expense of other high flight college teams.  The University of California Rugby Club probably has a bigger budget than many of the teams in the Rio Grande Local Rugby Union (where I live) combined. This includes a really good College Premier university side (the University of New Mexico) and the 2009 Men’s Division II National Championship Runner-Ups (Albuquerque Aardvarks). 

It’s also why Cal rugby can afford to lose its varsity status.

If Cal does indeed pull in enough money to give back to the Athletic Department every year (as I’ve heard, and please correct me if I’ve heard incorrectly), then presumably they’d get to keep it after they move to Club… excuse me, “Varsity Club” status.  They could offer their own scholarships, provide quite well for their student athletes, all on their own, with their own money.


Competing for students

This shouldn’t even be a point of consideration. Cal Head Coach Jack Clark mentioned recently that other schools were able to offer incentives to their own club players – such as … in state tuition.

Really? The University of New Mexico being able to offer in-state tuition to a kid from Socorro is really a threat to Cal Rugby?

The University of California is one of the United States’ elite public universities. Period.  Even on a level playing field, you can still offer potential rugby student athletes an incredible educational opportunity.  Not too mention, there are quite a few high school rugby studs in the state of California, Cal Rugby just might not be able to stockpile them.


Leveling the Playing Field

Apparently I’m in the minority of believing that this event will have the added impact of balancing out the competition levels in college rugby.  While many people feel, and rightly so, that this will have a negative impact on teams trying to elevate themselves in the eyes of their college athletic department and possibly gain the same benefits for their program that Cal has had for many years.  

It’s not a matter of making everything “fair” across the board, but other college teams need to be able to be more competitive over time.  Having one team with 25 national championships in a short amount of time is a monopoly that Microsoft would love to have.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s not going to happen.  Men’s rugby is never going to be recognized by the NCAA as a full-fledged sport – the U.S. Rugby Powers that Be made sure of that back in the day.  Women’s rugby, there’s a possibility there.  Cal Rugby offered to try and field 65 women for a women’s team as well, mitigating any Title IX impact.  The university might take them up on that offer, still reducing the men’s team to club status, but taking on the 65 women’s athletes to better balance the school’s Title IX obligations.

The vast majority of U.S. rugby fans don’t want to see Cal get relegated to club status, seeing it as a devaluation in the sport at universities around the country.  And it does not look like it now, but this could be the best thing for college rugby in America, allowing other teams to finally be competitive.


And that’s the Bottom Line…

I’m not here to blast Cal Rugby, despite what many Cal supporters are going to say if they’ve read this far.  I’m a big supporter of the program, I’ve had the opportunity to see them play and interview both Clark and former U.S. Eagles Head Coach Tom Billups when they were here in Albuquerque many years back.  They are both class acts and eminently professional, and the program is the measuring stick of every program in the country – club and collegiate.  Plus many international clubs can learn a lot from the Golden Bears.

While it does suck to see Cal lose its varsity status, I don’t think the program will be as irreparably damaged as Cal supporters think it will be.  They still have a massive advantage and for the next 3-5 years after the changeover (in the 2011 academic year) they will remain the best collegiate rugby team in the U.S.  It’ll take other dedicated teams that long to try and develop the foundation to catch up with them.


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