SF State women's rugby tackles stereotypes and gender roles

SFSU rugby

USF and SF State students practice together on the Rugby team at Negoseco Stadium at USF. Feb. 29, 2012 Photo by Andrew Lopez

Burly athletes sprinting up and down the field aiming to hit others with bone-crushing tackles aren’t images typically associated with female athletes.

A group of 10 athletic women from SF State has taken up the international sport of rugby, defying stereotypical gender roles by playing one of the world’s most grueling sports. The game of rugby, a sport similar in physicality to football, tends to attract male competitors. Yet the women of the intercollegiate Bay Area Touring Side rugby team have taken on the challenge.

Players from SF State and the University of San Francisco make up the team, which plays against other nearby colleges in 30 minute matches. The club has a roster of around 25 girls, tripling its membership after initially struggling to field a team. The recruitment was mitigated by generalizations of what it means to be a female rugby player.

“It’s hard to recruit girls to come out and play because they feel like it’s not a girly sport,” said Stephanie Wills, the club president. “They don’t want to play because boys don’t like girls who play rugby.”

Wills, a senior nursing major at USF, joined the team in 2008 when the squad had about four to seven girls. She feels that rugby is a sport worth trying, whether a player wants to play a physical sport or meet new people.

“I would hope that they would find a warm, welcoming environment,” Wills said. “And get them involved in something that has changed our lives so positively.”

Despite the rewarding aspects of the team, the players recognize the mental and physical downfalls of playing a full contact sport.

In addition to stereotypes about female rugby players, injuries have been a determent for potential players. Several girls on the team have suffered serious injuries, and minor injuries are nearly ubiquitous during games and practice.

Brittany Johnston, a senior at SF State, dislocated her knee while practicing with the team. Back on the field after months of rehabilitation, Johnston hasn’t let the injury discourage her from playing rugby. She feels that a common stereotype the team has had to overcome is the idea that women are weaker or not as athletic as men, a notion that the team quickly disproved while playing against the USF men’s rugby team.

“A guy said ‘Oh wow, you can pass it.’ I was like I know we’re girls, but we can do it,” Johnston said. “I think it’s hard for a women’s rugby team to deal with (sexism) because we’re really about women being equal with men.”

The men’s head coach told his team that the girls were tough and strong hits by Johnston and teammate Brittany Rickman reinforced his warning.

Although the team has shown the capabilities of competing physically with men, the players are still learning proper tackling techniques. Most of the women on the team began playing rugby in college and have had to learn the basics from older players and the coaches.

Kathy Flores has coached the BATS since 2008 and has helped turn the team into one of the best in their division. Besides coaching the Berkeley All Blues and the Fog men’s team, Flores has played for and coached the Women’s National Team.

She played for the Women Eagles, who won the inaugural women’s rugby World Cup in 1991. She brings the experience of performing under extreme pressure to her coaching, which has helped her effectively prepare her team for difficult games.

“The upper level stuff like coaching at a World Cup is stressful. Coming down to this level and all other levels, I’m stressed. But it’s nothing like a World Cup,” Flores said. “I learned to make quick decisions.”

Flores’ experience has given her an eye for talent. She sees potential in many of the BATS players, notably 21-year-old SF State senior Sally Le who plays scrum-half, rugby’s version of a quarterback. This is one of the most important positions because she makes a lot of the decisions for the team upon clearing the ball from the scrum.

“Rugby definitely empowers me. I have more confidence. It’s made me be a leader,” Le said. “It’s helped me be more social.”

Her physical strength and agility have propelled her to success, and Flores feels that she has a real future in rugby.

“Le has a lot of talent, she gets the game,” Flores said. “I’d like to see her continue to play because she’s got the potential to play on the Women’s National Team.”

Changing people’s attitudes toward rugby has not been easy, but Wills points to her positive experiences as motivation for future women’s rugby players.

“I didn’t think that this was going to do everything it’s done for me. I just wanted to hit people,” Wills said. “And now it’s so much more than that.”

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