Rugby is often referred to as an inclusive sport - there is a position for every different body type and skill package – and recently that ideal of inclusiveness was once again on show as two Washington, DC-area clubs met for a friendly match under scrimmage rules in the Maryland Suburbs.
The plan was for the new Gay-inclusive rugby club, the Washington Scandals, to host Washington All-Deaf for four 20 minute-periods of play. A triple-digit shutout and a lack of replacement players on both sides brought the game to a halt shortly after the 4th period began and everyone was happy and satisfied.
The Scandals are actually the 2nd Gay-identified rugby club in the DC area. The DC Renegades, founded in 1999,
now refer to themselves as a “multi-cultural” rugby club and compete as a Division III Men’s club team in the Potomac Rugby Union. (Clarification - we previously said the Renegades "now" refer to themselves as multi-cultural, when in fact they have always done so.)
This past weekend, in the opening of club play they defeated teams from Frederick, Md. (47-5) and Western Suburbs, based in Virginia, 32-7. This coming week-end they face former DII Champs, Rocky Gorge (but their DIII team).
The Renegades hold a place in Gay rugby history as the hosts in 2001 of the 1st International Gay rugby tournament held under the auspices of the newly formed International Gay Rugby Association and Board (IGRAB), an organization that still oversees competition between its member clubs around the world including; Australia, England, Wales, Scotland and the USA.
Today that tournament is billed as the largest rugby tournament in the world and is referred to as the Bingham Cup in honor of the most famous gay rugby player in history. Mark Bingham was a 6-4, 225 No. 8 who also owned a successful PR Consulting firm. As an undergrad at the University of California, Bingham played on two of Coach Jack Clark’s national championship teams in the early 1990s. He also kitted up for the nation’s most successful gay rugby club, The San Francisco Fog and had a hand in creating the Gotham Knights in New York City. On September 11th , 2001, Mark Bingham was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93. He is credited, along with other passengers, of overtaking the hijackers and forcing the plane to crash in a field near Shanksville, Pa instead of on its intended target, widely speculated to be a site in Washington DC.
The next Bingham Cup is scheduled to be held in Sydney, Australia in August of 2014. The Washington Scandal plans on being there. Arc Reiley and Matt Beale, who had played for The Fog, started organizing the Scandal in the fall of 2012. The Washington Scandal is first and fore-most a social organization that plays rugby. They held some fundraisers and approached potential recruits mostly in bars.
“My politics are that if someone is in a bar by himself he is looking to socialize and is not already engaged in a social circle,” said Club President Reiley. “If you go up and talk to that person, eight times out of ten he’s going to come out to practice. Hey, would you like to play some rugby? It’s not the usual line you’ll hear in a bar.”
In March they had four guys at practice.
“It was a long road” said Reiley, now club president. “Two practices a week with five guys. Then it was eight guys, then 20, then 40. A lot of gay men have a bad history with athletics, the bullying and the stereotyping. A lot of guys on our team have never played an organized sport before because of that. We teach basic athletics and how to be a part of a team. Rugby is an incredibly inclusive sport. We are a developmental club and the Gay identification just lowers a barrier for some guys who would otherwise feel intimidated.”
Reiley did concede that lack of the experience of contact in sport is also a detriment to his squad.
“Sometimes a 6-4 guy comes in and doesn’t have the knowledge that he can hit somebody and that’s OK!”
At this point the team has only 3 players with previous rugby experience.
Reflecting on the final outcome of the day’s scrimmage against the All-Deaf team, Riley said the Scandal prefers to focus on the tiny victories.
“A player makes his first tackle or a player gets the ball in his hands for the first time. That’s a big one. A lot of our guys when they first come out are afraid of getting the ball because that makes them a target. But you see them get the ball and turn down the field and they start to become a rugby player. Or the first time our pack wins a scrum. We didn’t score a try today. We have not scored a try yet but every small victory is a reason to celebrate.
“Every new club has to start somewhere” added Reiley. “The new gay clubs often go years without winning a match so you need to take the little victories.”
Mark Burke is the 43-year-old, silver-haired Founder, Captain and President of the All Deaf Rugby Football Club. Strangers have often remarked that he bears a resemblance to Tennis great John McEnroe.
“Now that we’re both old.” quipped Burke.
The team has only existed since 2012 when they entered a 7s side in the Washington D.C. Pick 7s Tournament. It is the only rugby team in this country consisting of only Deaf players.
People with hearing loss use the term Deaf to refer to their community and culture as a whole. The rugby club has members who are hard of hearing, and others who are completely deaf. They all communicate through using American Sign Language (ASL).
They also have Kyle Larsen, a hearing Graduate Student in ASL at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Larsen plays scrumhalf and interpreter, assisting in communication between the players and referees during matches. A native of Buffalo, NY, Larsen has played rugby since high school and was already proficient in ASL before he decided to continue his education at the world’s leading educational institute for Deaf people.
As Athletic Director for the Model Secondary School for the Deaf, Mark Burke introduced the game of rugby to his high school students in 2009. He started playing the game himself in Frederick, Md. in 1995. His love for rugby led him to establish the first Deaf high school team in the US and his desire to see those talents develop at the next level is why he created the All Deafs. It was hard for his graduates to become part of hearing rugby teams and to secure significant playing time.
It certainly wasn’t because of lack of skills. Just ask anyone who has met them on the pitch.
“Everyone seems to respect us.” said Burke. “We’ve had a lot support from the local rugby community
from day one. We have a good relationship with the Washington Rugby Club and we sometimes join practices with them as well. They have been a great help to us.” He added, “The people in the hearing community sometimes seem shocked that the deaf can have a team and really play well!”
You are not going to have to convince the Washington Scandal of that fact. Usually the ball only had to change hands a few times among the All Deaf before they crossed the try line for a score. They also used the Gary Owen, or up-and-under kick to great success against a much less experienced side. Because nearly every try was neatly centered between the goal posts, The All Deaf kicker and center, Mike West, didn’t miss a conversion until near the end of the 3rd, period.
West went 14-15 on the day and scored two tries for 28 points all on his own.
Other scorers for the All Deaf side included their No. 8, former American Footballer Michel Daze with three tries. Also with the hat trick was back John Van Wey. Four tries apiece went to Bobby Ofiu who has played in Alaska and Hawaii and Charles Cave III. Burke thinks his players might underestimate the significance of what they do on the pitch.
“Our guys think; ‘Yeah, I’m playing rugby.’ But I don’t think they realize the impact it’s made in the rugby community.”
The All Deaf Rugby Football club is planning on joining regular league play in the Potomac Rugby Union as a Division 4 Men’s team this spring. The Model Secondary School’s high school team has been part of Washington DC’s Metropolitan Area Varsity Rugby Conference (MAVRC) since 2010 and competes against powerhouses like Gonzaga, DeMatha and Perry Street Pride.
Plus, there are plans underway for the first Deaf Rugby World Cup to be played in England some time in 2015. Burke predicts that the US Men’s Deaf team will win a World Cup before the USA Men’s Eagles will.