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Op-Ed: Reaching African American Rugby Players

    

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Op-Ed: Reaching African American Rugby Players

Perry Baker is a USA 7s team regular, but could we be doing more? David Barpal photo.

It is generally recognized that black men have been playing rugby since as early as 1900, when James Peters played for the Knowle Rugby Club in England. That is a long time ago.  Speed up to present day, even a casual viewer would recognize that the top tier teams have all featured black athletes in their starting 15. On the flipside, USA lags woefully behind. 

The question is why?

“Rugby is the fastest growing sport in North America” Nigel Melville’s words have reverberated off my lips and of all those who promote rugby to family, friends, moms, dads, potential players and sponsors. It resonates; and depending where in the country you reside, is quite apparent. The worry is rugby becomes soccer: every kid with a pair of shorts and cleats wants to play until they suddenly disappear from competitive competition somewhere between high school and full-time job.

Now it’s easy to forget the struggle to increase the number of African American and other under-represented groups in USA Rugby, when players like Perry Baker and Carlin Isles are heavily featured in promotions of the game. Truth be told, there are countless programs, very well organized, that are developing a diverse group of rugby players.

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And there have been some African American players at the highest level, but the latest examples in 15s - Deion Mikesell, Lorenzo Thomas, Demecus Beach, and Kingsley McGowan have not played regularly.

USA Rugby must somehow do a better job of linking to these programs and their leaders in order to facilitate a much stronger and consistent elevator up to the National Side. USA Rugby should be lauded for the outreach they have done in the coaching arena. The staff is both domestic and international; men and women of all stripes are represented. Player development is still a project in process.

It may be time to bring back the Grey Wolves; a group organized by Ram Eddings, who is now the diversity resource center program coordinator at Idaho State University. I started a rugby program at Archbishop Carroll HS in Washington, D.C. I 1988. Carroll was the first school in the area to integrate in 1951. By 1992, it had become a majority Black school. Our team was the first black rugby high school team in the Potomac Rugby Union. 

The Grey Wolves, a traveling all-star team that featured Black, and Native American players were a marvel! My kids assisted them in conducting a rugby clinic for a local elementary school; then the Grey Wolves played an exhibition game. I, my kids, and the entire student body ooh and ahh’d at the speed, ball skills and grace of the Grey Wolves. It was very easy to recruit players from then on.

That brings me to my final point. I encourage USA Rugby, and all who want to make our teams the most competitive in the world, to knock on every door, not just the most obvious doors. Carroll was a college preparatory school. My players went on to become productive citizens. Some played rugby in college, lots played football or ran track. Some are now coaches, others are doctors, train conductors, FBI agents, stock brokers, air traffic controllers, IT specialists, etc. They run the gamut of the opportunity that is America. Don’t be misguided by the fact they attended private school; a number of these players rose above very challenging circumstances. Rugby was an oasis and an extended family. 

If USA Rugby is to truly challenge the top tier teams, we must have our top tier athletes on the field. Throw away the excuse that they are playing on Sunday, or are otherwise drawn away. Given the opportunity and knowing there is an escalator up to the national team … through playing rugby from the get, will land us a diverse and talented pool of international worthy players.

- Robert “Bo” Newsome
About the writer: Bo Newsome played for Columbia University, Old Blue, Montgomery RFC, Maryland Exiles, PRU Selects, and the Old French International Team-Alexandria Roosters. He has also coached Archbishop Carroll HS in Washington DC, Rocky Gorge RFC, and the Maryland Exiles.