Club Profile: the Willamette Rugby Team
The Willamette Rugby Club strives for LGTBQ+ inclusion, even as larger organizations fail to provide universal protection against discrimination for queer players.
Amongst the plethora of club teams offered at Willamette, Rugby stands out as being the only sport housed on campus which has a male team and not a strictly female counterpart. The team was formerly known as the “Female Rugby Club Team”, however the name was changed to “The Willamette Rugby Club Team” during the 2020 Spring semester. The name change was largely pushed by former Female Rugby Club Team President, Mariko Moore, a 2020 alumnus.
“Our team already reflected it”, Niamh Sheely (‘22, she/her), current president of the team, said, “so we changed the name.”
Over the past several years, discussions have taken place across all sports about the placement of gender-queer athletes. The politics surrounding inclusivity within sports has been ongoing, spanning from hometown fields to the professional stage. As of now, rugby is not routinely gender-queer inclusive on a national level. World Rugby’s guidelines outwardly ban transgender players from female rugby tournments and teams. The administrators cited “size, strength, power and speed” differences as being their motivating factor, worried discrepancies would jeopardize the “risk and performance” of rugby. Additionally, they still use binary language for their leagues. It should be noted that the guidelines do allow for flexibility in their application at the more local levels of the game, but fail to provide any guaranteed protections for those players.
Outside of the national sphere, Sheehy went on to add that regional teams have been largely inclusive: “Rugby in America is relatively new, but because of how small it is it has such a tight community. We noticed a lot of other teams had a lot of transgender and non-binary students.” She mentioned that “Even outside of college, Portland has a team, Salem has a team, they are very inclusive.”
Players on the team seemed to echo the sentiment: Gretchen Jacobs (23’,she/her Prop) said, “We all have a collective goal [of]having fun. Getting out and exercising, creating a team. It's more social than anything, which I think is really nice. I’ve made a lot of friends on the team, I know a lot more freshmen and second-years than I would have otherwise.”
Rugby’s popularity has spiked throughout the United States, and Willamette is no exception. “In my first game, there were 8 of us,” Sheehy said, “and now there are 23.” Players have cited many reasons for joining. For Jacobs, she “Really wanted the team aspect,” but ultimately chose rugby over other club sports because she “really wanted to tackle.” For Buzz (they/them, 23’ Prop/Scrum Half), it was a friend: “They talked about rugby all the time. I asked if I could come to a practice, and she said ‘Yeah, you can sign up then and there.’ That was my first year. I came the next day, and wow-- I was like, ‘I flipping love this.’”
As of yet, no other Willamette teams have joined Rugby in using less binary language in their team names. When asked if other sports should follow in their footsteps, opinions were mixed. There are definitely technicalities to account for, “I think that if anyone has the ability to, they should” Buzz said, “But I’m not sure how it changes from club to varsity.” Sheehy was hesitant to presume that what works for Rugby could work for every sport, or that a name change is necessary for teams to be inclusive in the first place.
“Literally anyone can join,” Sheehy added at the end of her interview, “you're guaranteed to have a great time. People are joining and staying. We try to foster a really fun community where you get to meet new people, exercise and meet people from different backgrounds.”
The team is still accepting new players, and they encourage anyone and everyone to come play. The Willamette Rugby Team practices on the Quad on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 4:15 - 6 pm.