It is a common stereotype of female rugby players that they are butch, bulky, and intimidating. Despite the fact that this is usually not true, many female rugby players are often subjected to sexual stereotypes on and off the field. Riley Covington, 20, the president of the USF Rugby Club, says she has experienced her fair share of stereotyping during her time as a rugby player, hearing statements like, “You must be so badass!” and “You must be butch, right?”
Covington, a fine arts major and film studies minor, has been playing rugby for four years. She is 5’6” with a slim-fit athletic build, short ash blonde hair, bright blue eyes and subtle freckles. She maintains her athletic build by going to the gym at least twice a week, using a set cardio and weightlifting routine. She also attends a two-hour practice twice a week, in addition to an hour of intense fitness and another hour of gameplay and mental fitness.
When it comes to being “badass,” Covington says, “It’s almost like street cred. I am not the person to get in a fight but deep down I will rep that title of being a rugby player. You begin to gain a level of confidence when you start playing. You really learn how to use your body physically.”
Covington isn’t the only member on her team who has experienced the impact of sexual stereotypes, but instead of standing around and letting the stereotypes impact the way players perform at games and in practice, they have developed a sense of humor about it. Team members laugh and poke fun at the stereotypes by using “Oh, you butch,” as a term of endearment.
Despite the joking around, rugby does have a big LBGT+ community attached to it, according to Covington. “If you look at the average rugby team, you will see every kind of person. We have straight girls who are feminine and we also have straight girls that aren’t so feminine. We have lesbians of every variety and we also have women who are in the process of transitioning,” says Covington.
Still, a stereotype exists that everyone who plays women’s rugby is gay. “I don’t think anyone has said it negatively to me. If so, I would dismiss it. Sometimes that stereotype exists on the team where someone can say, ‘Oh, you’re gay because you play rugby’ and I always try to say no, that is not what that means,” says Covington.
Not every rugby player is bulky, badass or butch. They all differ significantly. Every player has a different strong suit. For Covington, it is her ability to play different positions on the field.
The only visible similarity after watching the team practice for an hour is their all-inclusive spirit. The team captain, Sydney Abel—known among teammates as “Squid”—is standing on the sidelines. She is currently sick and unable to play but she cheers the team on anyway while they sprint down the field. She grabs my arm lightly and says, “Come on and practice with us! It will be fun!” After insisting on staying near the sidelines to take notes, she smiles, turns back and says, “Maybe next time.”
Despite the team’s great camaraderie and sense of humor there are only fifteen players on the team this year. To compete successfully with their biggest opponents—St. Mary’s and Humboldt State University—they need a full squad of twenty-five members. According to Covington, other colleges in the surrounding area, including Academy of Art University and San Francisco State University, will be allowed to join USF’s women’s rugby club team and compete during the spring semester.
There’s only one question that looms over the struggle: why are women who might otherwise have interest in rugby, not joining the team? Is it that people are not joining the teams because the sport is too unfamiliar? Or, is it the fear of joining a sport that is often misrepresented through stereotypes? According to the women who play rugby, the answer isn’t simple.
“Rugby is not a well-known sport despite it being one of the fastest growing women’s sports in the United States, and in the world,” says head coach Vicki Hudson. “For this generation you really don’t get to see rugby until you get into college. You kind of have to stumble over it to know it’s even there.” Covington brings up an obvious point—and the reason why the team may not be filled up already—“I must admit it. Rugby can at first seem like a scary sport.”
This is another stereotype that rugby must overcome in order to grow in popularity, that it is simply too dangerous to play. Watching a rugby team scrum can at first appear scary to people who are not familiar with the rules and regulations. If players do not properly move their body during a scrum, serious physical harm could follow.
As Hudson notes however, rugby is actually safer than many other sports despite its violent appearance, “The difference is in rugby we have a much smaller rate of injury because we have far more intense rules and regulations and coaching requirements to help prevent injuries. The tackler has the responsibility to make sure the ball carrier gets to the ground safely. That is part of the tackle making sure both players get to the ground safely. The things that reduce injury are fitness, coaching and practice.”
There is no passing in rugby so players must be well trained on how to tackle others, and how to be tackled themselves. In football, the players usually tackle head first and hit harder as a result of the perceived safety that wearing a lot of padding brings. Both of these things lead to higher rates of serious injuries like concussions.
Near the end of practice, Hudson tosses a tennis ball to a player with the words “Play Rugby” written on both sides in sharpie. She is wearing a white t-shirt and black mesh shorts. The coach asks the whole team, “What should you remember to do this week?” A team member with long brown hair tied up in a ponytail answers, “Toss around the ball and try to get more people out on the field.”
Every week the coach encourages the women on the team to toss around the tennis ball to people around campus with the hope that they might ask them a little bit about the sport and clear up any misconceptions or stereotypes they have towards it. “It’s a more personal approach to recruiting,” says Hudson.
“Mostly we recruit through word of mouth,” says Hudson. “You don’t need any experience. If you have played any other sport at all rugby is a good crossover. Any other sport from chess to hockey has skills that you can use in rugby and we will find a position that works for you.”
For Covington, the moment she realized she had the skills to endure rugby came during the first game of her second season. “My first season was a terrifying and confusing experience. During my first game I got pulled out and had to watch on the sidelines. This is when I finally began to understand the game. When I was on the field I was terrified of tackling other people. I didn’t mind being tackled. I even thought of quitting that next semester but the season started and in the first game that passion was there and I said to myself, ‘No way I’m quitting!’” she says.
For Covington, rugby taught her to stick with things she wanted: “Good things aren’t easy.”