Spring Hill College’s men’s and women’s rugby teams are at risk of losing their athletic scholarship, preventing the teams from recruiting more members and keeping the sport alive on campus.
The men’s rugby team has been around for 48 years, while the women’s rugby team has been around for five years. Both teams are the only ones to bring in Division I schools and win against them. The men’s rugby team beat Auburn University 40-0 and Florida State University 35-0. The women’s rugby team beat Louisiana State University 76-23. Most rugby teams are typically offered at big state schools, but Spring Hill College is an exception, like several other smaller institutions. However, the question still remains on why the lack of funding, organization, and support from the school is not being identified.
Jim Hall, head of the athletic department, offered insights on the matter. When asked about the disbanding of the athletic scholarships, he said, “Both the men's and women's rugby teams are club sports programs and not NCAA sports teams. Traditionally, club sports teams do not offer scholarships for participation.” Hall commented further that the rugby coach was “allowed to offer small, partial scholarships for the last four years to try to increase team roster size.”
Hall confirmed that the school decided that it would no longer offer rugby scholarships and would return to offering only academic scholarships to eligible incoming rugby participants. However, all current rugby players receiving a scholarship, will be allowed to keep their scholarship until graduation, or, if applicable, leave the team. Hall also stated that there were no plans to discontinue either team, if team members continue to show interest and dedication to the sport.
In October, the men’s rugby team received word that the college could dismantle the team’s athletic scholarship. An experienced rugby player can receive a $2,000 scholarship a year, and a crossover athlete can receive a $1,000 scholarship. If there are leftover funds, certain individuals qualify for the higher scholarship amount. However, if the team’s athletic scholarship funding is revoked, changes will be made.
According to Mark Olsen, president of the men's rugby team, players and alumni voiced their frustration about rugby coach Austin Becker reportedly not being paid. Olsen also explained how the rugby team is not allowed to verify donations or see what is in its personal account. The men’s rugby team started a petition, asking multiple organizations to help the rugby team keep its athletic scholarships. Olsen says the teams have support from 300 people. There are plans to submit the petition later this week to hopefully get it finalized.
The women’s rugby team began noticing changes in the fall of 2016. Senior Tee Nash explained how practices were no longer consistent, and games started being canceled. Since then, more changes have been implemented. Nash stated that the women’s team did not receive a full conference as promised. Nash added that players were responsible for scheduling matches, and travel expenses were cut, making the team’s organization fall flat. If there is a possible game, the team can use the recreation center on campus to train, like other sports teams, but the the rugby team cannot go in as a program; the women must go in small groups if they wish to train.
The men’s rugby team can go in as a program and also have their own personal trainer. Finally, the women’s rugby team have lost its athletic scholarship funding for next year, but current players will be able to keep their scholarships. Nash expressed, “[The team] found [rugby], or it found us, and we love it. However, a lot of us get stressed with the position we are in.” During Nash’s freshman year at SHC, the women’s rugby team consisted of 25 members. Since then, the numbers have decreased due to the various restrictions placed on the team.
The NCAA does recognize rugby as a sport, even for Division 1 schools, yet Spring Hill’s conferences: South Independence Rugby Conference and the Deep South Conference are not recognized. Rather, it is recognized in other conferences, such as the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC).
Both rugby teams are set to play on April 14 with former alumni players.