Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Why American Women Play Rugby

Academic journal article Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal

Why American Women Play Rugby

Article excerpt


Rugby, a fast-paced, aggressive contact sport, has a high incidence of injury. This study examines why US women play rugby given the social stigma surrounding women's participation in sports in general, particularly contact sports, and despite the high risk of injury. In a survey of their injury history and potential injury risk factors, 339 female rugby players from 14 teams of varied quality and levels of play from a wide geographic area in the United States were asked why they played the sport. Their responses indicate that women play rugby because they enjoy the game, they like the aggressive aspects of the sport, they appreciate the social aspects of the game, and they believe the sport provides them with positive benefits, such as increased fitness, confidence, and strength. The results of this study indicate that many women are willing to risk injury for the positive rewards that they associate with rugby.


Rugby is a fast-paced, full-contact sport that is traditionally played with minimal, if any, protective pads. Players themselves seem proud of the perceived aggressiveness and physicality of the sport, often sporting bumper stickers and t-shirts bearing slogans like "Give Blood: Play Rugby" and "Rugby: Elegant Violence." The combination of physicality and sport has meant that, historically, rugby has been a predominantly male game. When women quietly began playing World Cup rugby in 1991 with little media attention, the United States (US) established itself on the international scene by winning the first World Cup and finishing second in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.

Although the sport is extremely popular in certain regions of the world, particularly South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and portions of Europe and South America, it is not particularly popular in the US. USA Rugby (USAR), the national governing body for the sport, estimates that approximately 50,000 men, women, and children were registered players in 2005 (USAR, 2006). The governing body does not break down the number of female players on its web site; however, in December of 2001, a representative of the organization estimated that about 25% of the registered players were female (Comstock, 2002).

Rugby's popularity among women is growing. In 2002 the National Collegiate Athletic Association classified women's rugby as an emerging sport. USAR subsequently created an Emerging Sports Initiative to help universities start varsity women's rugby teams, and as of 2006 four colleges had done so. Although the USAR does not specifically suggest that making women's rugby a varsity collegiate sport will help a school comply with Title IX--the legislation which prohibits gender discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funding--their web site does explain the law and how to comply (USAR, 2006).

Hence, women's rugby in the US is at an intersection of sometimes conflicting ideas and influences. From a participation perspective, more and more women and girls are playing sports than in the past. Women's participation in sport has increased dramatically since 1972 when Title IX was enacted. In 1971 about 294,000 girls played in high school athletics (Carpenter & Acosta, 2005) and by 2005-2006 just under three million girls were playing (Participation in High School Sports, 2006). From a legal perspective, many high schools and colleges feel that they need to add more sporting opportunities for girls and women, in part to comply with Title IX regulations. Despite the increase in sport participation and the greater opportunities in college and high school sport for females, women and girls in the US have historically been discouraged from participating in contact sports, a venue traditionally preserved for men (Fields, 2005).

Female participation in rugby in the US, however, seems to run counter to this historical exclusion of women from contact sport because women and girls' participation in rugby continues to increase. …

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