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What West Point Varsity Move Means

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What West Point Varsity Move Means

As Goff Rugby Report reported on July 18 that they would, the US Military Academy made men’s and women’s rugby varsity Friday, marking a dramatic turnaround for the men’s program.


The men’s team had been under suspension and then a sort of probationary period, where the team’s status was very much in doubt. But, instead of having the team come back under a cloud, Army Men’s Rugby, along with Army Women’s Rugby, is now operating under the Academy’s Athletics Department, with Mike Mahan Head Coach for the men, and Bill LeClerc Head Coach for the women.


In making the announcement, Army Director of Athletics Boo Corrigan made no mention of the men’s team’s troubles, except in an oblique way when he said that the Directorate of Cadet Activities had done a good job overseeing - and, presumably, disciplining - the team. He didn’t speak to that because he’s thinking about the future. He know what he expects from his varsity teams … there will be no question of backsliding. That is good not only for the two teams in question, but the sport as a whole.


Corrigan said he doesn’t know much about rugby, but is excited to learn more, and sees the sport as a natural fit for West Point. That’s a sentiment that has been repeated for years. Rugby has been a huge part of the military academies, for decades, in part because the game is physical, tests character and decision-making, and forms team bonds - all things good warriors need to learn about.


But for rugby fans across the country, this has been perhaps the most notable turnaround in a distressing couple of years for college programs.


Utah was put on probation, then suspended, and their head coach lost his job. They are still under careful scrutiny. Delaware was railroaded into a death penalty they didn’t deserve. Washington State were threatened with unfair sanction, fought back, and won, but their status is essentially unchanged. Penn State suffered a short suspension, but may also emerge from the ashes somewhat stronger. 


But no team has gone from heavy suspension to varsity. And here the Academy may well have understood something that other schools need to realize - if this team is playing other colleges; if this team, made up as it is of our students, is representing us; if this team is playing a tough sport that requires coaching and medical expertise; then maybe it shouldn’t be looked on as an “activity” or simple “recreation.” Maybe we should accept that rugby is popular and extend a hand out to help it do better.


Maybe the rugby team needs something more. Maybe, since, except in rare instances, college rugby players are regular students playing full-freight, the University in question should look out for the welfare of the students. Maybe rugby is an opportunity, not a burden.


Of course, at the same time, the players have to uphold their end of the bargain. Alcohol consumption has no place in any team activity, When the players act as a unit, it should be to uplift the school and themselves and their sport, not to downgrade it. Everyone remembers the rugby team when it does something stupid. We want more stories like Texas A&M helping the orphanage in Nuevo Laredo, or the IUP women’s team helping accident victims on the interstate. 


The move to varsity for West Point begs the question whether Navy and Air Force will be next. The US Naval Academy program is one we should all be proud of, and with its standing on campus secure, it might be that Navy will be next. The men’s and women’s programs don’t work together as tightly as they have at Army, but that will come.


At Air Force, which has won national championships for both men and women, but not for over ten years, the situation seems more complex. It has been a long, hard road for Air Force rugby to get back to honored status, and it seems that at times the men’s program kind of lost the concept of honoring themselves through the game. 


Perhaps that’s the final lesson. Going varsity does not mean you’ve arrived. Going varsity means the stakes are higher. Going varsity means you will be under a more powerful microscope. West Point is fortunate to have Mahan and LeClerc at the helm, because they will not lose sight of what’s important. And - no pressure guys - this has to work.

See Boo Corrigan's comments on Army Rugby: