By Gilberto Gamboa
Nothing is more American than the sport of football. But one sport from across the pond is making its way into the nation’s sports culture. Interestingly enough, a very important moment of American history helped increase awareness of rugby exponentially, including here in Phoenix.
Rugby teams around the valley have existed and increased in numbers since before the turn of the century. Most prominent are the Arizona State University (ASU) club teams that include both men’s and women’s teams. Equally as important are the diverse community and social teams based in the heart of Phoenix.
Teams have no problem finding new members; there is not a lack of interest in playing rugby. But there is one shared goal by all involved in the sport – increased visibility. Today a rugby fan would have to search for special online live streams in order to enjoy a game. “It is very difficult for a person to find a game to watch,” said Stephen Enteman. He, his teammates and fans of the sport are all hoping that will soon change due to the increased awareness of the sport in the last several years.
One name that has impacted the popularity of the sport might be familiar to most Americans: Mark Bingham. He was the rugby player on board United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. He’s been credited as a key player in the actions taken against the terrorists on board that diverted the plane from its original target.
“His story really brought attention to the sport,” said Mike Fortey. A rugby player since 2006 and now captain of the Phoenix Storm team, Fortey added that Bingham’s story was not only about helping take down the infamous flight but also about being an example of what it is to be a rugby player.
Bingham was a gay man who had played rugby since his school years. Fortey shares that “Bingham’s goal was to bring both of his worlds together,” adding that membership and spectatorship of the sport took off soon after Bingham’s full story made its rounds.
Another mention of the Bingham story came from Tommy Boyle, ASU men’s rugby president. To him, it did not matter that Bingham was gay. This comment seems to stem from the culture formed by the sport. “The culture is one of the reasons that I still choose rugby,” said Boyle.
Rugby players take pride in being part of a brotherhood that spans time and borders. It is no surprise that Bingham was highlighted as an exemplary member of this unique brotherhood. Being gay does not affect how the players view a particular team member. To them, anyone willing to put themselves out there is a part of the world-wide rugby family.
In fact, Compete Magazine was founded on the rugby pitches of New York City in 2006. Eric Carlyle and David Riach, both members of the Phoenix Storm, attended the world tournament and realized that there was no media coverage of the event and most people didn’t know who Mark Bingham was.
Upon returning to the Phoenix area, they launched Sports Out Loud (later changed to Compete), the first print publication devoted to diversity and LGBT sports. Now in its seventh year, Compete’s Athlete of the Year Award was renamed this year to the Mark Bingham Athlete of the Year Award and Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland, joined Carlyle in awarding the 2013 award to transgender triathlete Chris Mosier.
The diversity and acceptance of different types of players – men, women, gay, straight, young and old – is what attracts many to the sport. Players see this as a reason why some people who are turned off by American football are attracted to rugby.
While providing information about his own team, Boyle expressed his respect for ASU’s women’s team as well. Since its start in 1994 the women’s team has won 11 national championships and even participated in tournaments such as the Rugby Final Four. The men’s team has also enjoyed success since its formal organization into a club sport. With over 90 players, men’s rugby is ASU’s fastest growing program.
Both Boyle and Enteman mentioned the difference in how the two games of football are conducted on and off the field. Although major aggression and competitiveness are brought to the field in both forms, they end once a rugby game is over; not always the case with football.
“Football players are taught to hate their opposing teams and players, whether they are playing the game or not,” said Boyle. The camaraderie of rugby contributes to the general acceptance of many lifestyles within the different teams. “I have seen no difference since we started playing with gay men and it personally does not matter to me,” said Skyler King, a member of the Camelback Rugby team.
The diversity of players allows for added spectatorship which, in turn, contributes to increased membership. If the trend of the last several years continues, valley teams will not have a shortage of games to play in the future.