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    For women’s rugby players, sport represents empowerment

    Despite, or perhaps because of, the violence involved, women's rugby at Stony Brook has grown in recent years.

    As the ball carrier sprints to score, the opposition, more than 10 strong, is hunting them down in plain view. There’s no avoiding.

    And before you know it, bodies suddenly collide, sweat-on-sweat, shoulder-to-shoulder. Pushing and shoving ensue. Arms grab everything and legs kick everywhere. Voices grunt and rumbling thuds are heard as players fall to the ground. And it happens again all in a matter of seconds.

    This is women’s rugby

    “To be able to have that feeling that men can have of being aggressive and being able to play a sport that gives you that kind of adrenaline and empowerment,” forward Samantha Sergio, 23, a former Stony Brook’s women’s rugby player, said. “It definitely was a positive experience.”

    More and more women like Sergio, drawn to the aggressive nature of rugby–generally considered a male sport–are participating in women’s rugby. However, the gains in numbers, and thus the rising popularity and recognition of women’s rugby, haven’t helped equalize all the attention men’s rugby receives. The longstanding stereotype of female athletic inferiority still keeps women’s rugby teams, including Stony Brook’s team, walking in the shadows of their male counterparts.

    “I think part of that might be the idea of the frail, work-in-the-kitchen kind of woman being out and doing something so aggressive,” Sergio said of male rugby’s dominance. “There’s less funding, there’s less awareness, pretty much less everything when it comes to women’s [rugby].”

    Compared to the men’s side, the Stony Brook women’s team this year has less than half the funding ($21,000 to $48,500) and roster size (under 40 to over 80). These numbers, compounded by the fact that many members graduated over the last couple of years, have forced the team to essentially build from scratch again within a tight budgetary window.

    “They’ve been graduating a lot right now,” men’s back Jasper Wilson said. “So, they’re in a transition process, still developing, trying to get some new players.” Wilson added that every starter for the men’s team has returned from last year, which means it “has an advantage right now” over the women’s team in maintaining recognition and popularity.

    “It’s really a numbers game and building up and trying to get girls to come out and play,” forward Meagan Border, 21, said. “The more girls you get, you get a bigger fan base. You get a bigger budget. You can do bigger and better things with your club.”

    One of those things is become NCAA-affiliated. Women’s rugby clubs, unlike the male clubs, are afforded that opportunity because the NCAA has classified rugby as an “emerging sport.” According to the NCAA, an emerging sport helps elevate women’s participation in athletics in order to address college sports gender imbalance and comply with Title IX, the federal law that prevents discrimination at institutions like Stony Brook University that receive federal funding.

    According to usarugby.org, women’s rugby became an emerging sport in 2002 and has since then grown to include 11,000 female club rugby players. Five women’s rugby clubs have even made the jump to NCAA-status and include 170 female student-athletes.

    The growth of the Stony Brook club is a microcosm of the spikes in club participation. Since women’s rugby became an emerging sport, the number of women on the team increased from just over ten to where it is now, just under 40. And, in 2009, with more players than in previous years, it had a chance to go NCAA and garner both campus and national attention.

    “After my freshman year, we had a very good season and we actually got close to being NCAA,” Border said. “But I don’t think it was in our cards then. We weren’t at the level of competition we needed to be to go NCAA, but we were getting close.”

    Head coach Steve Galaris hopes to make another push for NCAA-affiliation in the spring, contingent on how well the team performs, by discussing it with the athletic department like he did last year.

    “I’d like to see it happen tomorrow, which I know is an unrealistic goal,” Galaris said. “Hopefully, in the next one to two years, we can actually make a big, solid push and get the information and guidance we need.”

    However, despite the women’s team’s roster growth and its ability to step into a wider spotlight, many of the university’s rugby coaches and players, male and female, believe the women’s team still isn’t at eye-to-eye level with men’s rugby. That mentality also applies to women’s rugby versus men’s rugby on a national scale.

    “It seems like recruiting is pretty strong for both teams, but [for the] women’s, not as much, because you don’t see a lot of women playing contact sports,” men’s back Brooks Surgan, 22, said of Stony Brook’s teams. “But I guess on a national level, men are definitely more popular. Rugby’s like any contact sport—it’s mostly men dominating the sport.”

    Back Lexi Slavin, 20, said she believes that although the women’s team might not have the edge, they will gain ground on the men sooner than later.

    “At some point, we’re going to be as recognized as the men’s team is,” she said emphatically. “It might take a little bit of time because everything takes some time, but I think well be right with them soon enough.”

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