When Stephanie Ruys de Perez got the word from Marcella Zalot, Colby College’s Harold Alfond Director of Athletics, Ruys de Perez knew the decision wouldn’t affect whether or not she would be able to play rugby at Colby. Still, Ruys de Perez remembers only parts of the conversation — Zalot saying she wasn’t going to sugar-coat it, that the school would not be covering the increasing expenses needed to field two rugby club teams.
“It’s kind of a blur,” Ruys de Perez said. “When they dropped the news on us, it was devastating. There were 40 to 50 people in the room, and there was tears on everyone’s faces, from senior boys to freshman girls.”
Colby recently informed the rugby teams, which are at a club level at the college, that the school would no longer fund the programs. The school estimates that it would cost approximately $121,000 per year to run the programs, and that an endowment to fund the programs would need to be in the area of $2.5 million.
According to the Colby Rugby Alumni Association website, “Colby has agreed to fund the program temporarily as long as we reach certain fundraising benchmarks that have yet to be determined.” Michael Kiser, Colby’s Vice President for Communications, said that is not the case. Asked if Colby will no longer have rugby after this spring, Kiser said, “The way the situation currently stands, yes. We’ve made our decision.”
The reaction has been ugly, with students, alumni, and other supporters of Colby rugby accusing the college of everything from falsifying the sport’s projected expenses, to a lack of transparency, to having a hidden agenda to eliminate the programs. A “Save Colby Rugby” page was created on Facebook on Sunday, and reached 1,000 “likes” by Tuesday afternoon.
“In all honesty,” said Scott Sivo, a Colby alum and former rugby player at the school, “it seems like as long as this stays between the pages of The Colby Echo and on their Facebook page, they’re very comfortable. They can stonewall, and they can make blanket statements.”
In a post Nov. 20 on Colby’s Facebook page, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer shared a letter that she recommended to Colby President William “Bro” Adams that the school stop funding the rugby teams after the 2014 spring season.
Kletzer added, “I know rugby is, and has long been, a valued aspect of Colby life for involved students, and I acknowledge the responsibility many students have displayed in providing oversight for the program. But the bottom line is that the requirements mandated by the inherent health and safety risks of the sport mean the College cannot responsibly offer rugby without significant additional expenditures.”
The reaction on the post was so passionate and critical that, in a post on Nov. 22, Kletzer explained that the average budget for the other club sports at Colby was less than $2,500. Kletzer was traveling and unavailable for comment on Tuesday, but Kiser said it was largely a financial decision.
“It’s really about establishing a level of support appropriate for a collision sport,” Kiser said. “We make these kind of $100,000 decisions all the time. It’s very unfortuante, but this is the reality of an institution like ours.”
Relationships between the rugby programs and Colby’s administration have been strained, at least since both Colby teams had to forfeit their opening games against Bowdoin this season. According to Ruys de Perez, it was a combination of the coach resigning shortly before the season started, the school requiring a trainer at each practice and then not providing one, and the school not allowing the teams to play because they had not had enough full-contact practices. On the website for the Colby women’s rugby team, for the Sept. 14 game against Bowdoin, it reads, “Forfeit – Colby’s Administration Issues.”
“We won every other game on our schedule,” Ruys de Perez said. “We probably would have had a shot to go nationals if we had won that game instead of having to forfeit.”
The biggest point of contention right now is the estimate that funding the two rugby programs will cost $121,000 per year. Kiser, while declining to break down the expenses, said the costs would be about $8,000 or $9,000 for operating expenses, and the rest would be to hire two part-time coaches (one each for the men and women) and an approximately full-time athletic trainer position. That trainer would be necessary because Colby would need to hire an extra trainer after this school year, and would be at home and away games and each practice.
While there is no consensus on the figures for other rugby club teams, many believe the $121,000 figure is unrealistic. Emma Korein, the treasurer for the Bates women’s rugby club team, said the school does not have a trainer travel to road games.
The University of Maine at Farmington has volunteer coaches who are certified by USA Rugby, according to Kirsten Swan, the school’s director for the center of student involvement and an advisor to the men’s and women’s rugby teams at UMF. Swan said the student senate pays $14,000 annually for insurance to cover all club sports, and the contract states that an EMT or athletic trainer must be available for all home matches. Swan said for the current year, the two rugby teams had a combined operating budget of $16,600.
Men’s rugby is also a club sport at Bowdoin, and coach Rick Scala said the college pays his part-time salary. Scala said he has six assistants, not all of whom are available all the time, and some of whom volunteer their time.
“Nobody gets rich coaching rugby,” Scala said. “It’s mostly gas money.”
Scala said his team has had a trainer at each home match and practice for several years, and this fall was the first season the team had a trainer travel with the team to road games. He said alumni are in the process of raising a $1 million endowment to help fund the program.
“It started less than a year ago,” Scala said. “They’ve been fairly successful. They’ve raised more than a quarter of it. They’re not there yet, but it is a reasonable goal.”
Saranna Thornton has an interest in both the Colby rugby programs and budgeting in the area of higher education. Thornton is a Colby grad, Class of â€˜81, and played on the first women’s rugby team at Colby. She coaches women’s rugby at Colby in the early 1990s, and is now the men’s rugby coach and a professor of economics (with a specialty in academic labor market) at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
Thornton can’t reconcile the estimated costs with reality. Using the last Professionals in Higher Education Salary Survey by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, estimating a salary of nearly $40,000 for an athletic trainer, and factoring in benefits and FICA tax, Thornton came up with estimated salary costs of $61,104 for the three positions.
“I don’t know who’s come up with the numbers,” Thornton said. “Whoever’s giving (Kletzer) data is grossly inflating the numbers of what it costs to run a rugby program safely.”
In separate interviews and without prompting, Ruys de Perez, Sivo, and Thornton all brought up the theme of lack of transparency. They paint a picture of rugby supporters frustrated that the school won’t provide a simple breakdown of the projected costs.
“We’ve gotten a couple budgets (from other programs) and none of them are even close to ours,” Ruys de Perez said. “They’re around $15,000.”
Ruys de Perez is frustrated about other related developments — she believes the school doesn’t appreciate how much rugby means to the people who play, and doesn’t understand why the college isn’t helping the alumni to raise the money. If there are two positives, she said, they have been the overhwleming support and the increased awareness of the teams on campus.
An online petition to the Colby administration had a goal of 3,500 signatures, and was over 3,800 as of Tuesday evening. Even Bowdoin wants to lend a hand.
“We would be devastated,” Scala said. “Our alumni, our coaches, our players — we’re certainly going to do whatever we can to help them out. Rugby is a close community. We will do everything that we can to assure that the Colby-Bowdoin rivalry continues.”