American Rugby League Struggles to Attract Black Players

By Loren Broussard
Updated: April 14, 2006
CALIFORNIA—Like other American sports, the first game of football was similar to the English sport of soccer. The date of 1862 was given as the first date American football was practiced by the Oneida Football Club. Later, the soccer style version of football was used when Rutgers played the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in the year of 1869. In 1874, McGill University of Canada played Harvard University. McGill had asked that Harvard play their English version of football. Both schools agreed to play one football version of Rugby and one football version of soccer. The running and tackling facet of Rugby proved to be more popular, and soon it became the chosen contact sport for most eastern colleges.
There are two codes (versions) of rugby football, “Rugby league football” is one and the other being “rugby union football”. “Rugby league” is a team sport, played by teams of 13 players per side (usually plus 4 substitutes). The aim is to carry an oval ball up the field towards the opponents’ in-goal area. Grounding the ball down behind this line scores a try (touchdown), the main aim of the game. Points may also be scored by kicking the ball between the prongs of a H-shaped set of posts located on the goal line. The opposing team attempts to prevent scoring by tackling the player with the ball. In addition to running with the ball, players may pass it backwards to a teammate, or kick it in any direction they choose.
In the US, rugby underwent some radical changes, and ultimately splintered into two very different games. In 1880, the scrum was replaced with a line of scrimmage. When the forward pass was introduced in 1906, the old rugby rules withered, and the game of American football emerged. Although the original game of rugby flourished in Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, in the US, the sport was confined to a few small clubs, and didn’t revive until the 1960’s. Because the game was inexpensive and lively, however, rugby appealed to college students and clubs grew rapidly on college campuses. Considerable improvements came about when the governing body of the USARFU (United States of America Rugby Football Union), which was formed in 1975, established three levels of competition: premier division, division one, and division two. Tournaments and matches (games) are played year round in cities throughout the country at the levels of mini-youth, high school, college, women’s, men’s and senior competitions. And more and more young kids are beginning to play rugby.
Today, few Blacks grace the rugby field compared to the more traditional
American sports. Do we place the 2nd largest international sport of rugby football amongst the ranks of traditional American sports such as Gridiron, Baseball and Basketball, were we see over 80% of the players are of African American decent? Most of America does not know the sport of rugby football exists. Here is some history. James Peters was born in 1879. He was a Black Rugby player. From Salford, England, Young Peters played cricket, track and field and rugby at school. In 1900, he joined the Knowle Rugby Club. Some white members objected to the inclusion of a Black man and resigned. He played for Devon team where in 1906 the South African tourists refused to take the field with their team to play the county when they discovered they had a Black man on the team. 1907, Peters played for England’s national team against Scotland. It was here that he became the first Black man to play rugby in an international game. He continued to play rugby until 1912 when he was suspended after it was discovered Devon Rugby Club had paid him.

Peters then became a professional playing ‘Rugby League’ games for Barrow and St. Helens, England. James Peters died in 1954.

Whether they admit it or not, white players have gone to rugby practice and seen a new guy who sparks their interest. You haven’t seen the guy run or pass or ruck, but you know he’ll be good. It can’t be because he’s black, could it?

It’s a funny thing about African Americans and rugby – that they are exceedingly rare while at the same time assumed to have talent without having to prove it.

According to Rugby Magazine’s own demographic information, fewer than two percent of American rugby players are black. Such statistics are fairly common worldwide in a sport where the number of international players of African extraction can be counted on one hand (let’s see, notables, there’s Jeremy Guscott (England), and Courtney Smith (Canada), and George Gregan (Australia) and…).

Paul Hoskins, who joined the Denver Barbarians in 1968 at the age of 33, says he was the only black guy at the entire Aspen Ruggerfest Tournament in Colorado that year. The question remains, why aren’t African Americans playing more rugby? “We just need to show them there’s something other than football,” says Jason Raven (African American and California based rugby player), who has tried to recruit African-Americans to his club. “They’re just not exposed to it.” And when they are, the experience is mixed. Man, You Best Be Fast.
If white men can’t jump, then black men are expected to run, jump, and more? Blacks players who do play are expected to play on the wing because of their skin color. A black player on the Kern County club in California was away for a time, and when he returned he was greeted with hugs. “People would say ‘I heard the black guy was back out, so I just came to watch you run,” he said. They said that to his face.

Now, it’s hard to sell a sport that only pays if you are an international or you go overseas. Most Americans pick the game up in college, but by then, a lot of African American athletes are playing other sports.
It’s a conclusion reached also by Jack Clark, former USA Eagle coach, who has fielded several black players on his University of California team. Coach Clark said that if you look at the facilities they have as athletes in high school and college, black athletes are perhaps too sophisticated. Coach Clark feels they expect nice locker rooms and proper fields, professional coaches, and athletes who are absolutely switched on. Rugby football in America is changing pretty quickly, and rugby in America need to be in a position to be that sophisticated.
A man named Dave Rogers put together a team of black kids from Bakersfield, California in 1993 and taught them the game. Among black people, it’s considered a white man’s sport; it’s not an African-friendly sport. It’s like golf, rugby is still thought of as weird that a black person plays golf. African American players truly love rugby, but when you don’t see more than a few black people out there playing, it’s hard to sell it.
So who’s selling it? The Grey Wolves Rugby Football Club is, for one. Operated by Ram Eddings of Idaho, this group of 30 to 40 older players of all races visits inner city schools and groups to spread the rugby gospel. They have gone to probationary schools and other places to expose city kids to the game. How is this going to change, unless you get into the professional issue, and if you create a professional league? Like the few blacks that play or have played rugby league football in America, we asked ourselves, when and how are we going to get paid? I, being Black and having played rugby for over 16 years, having played in USA elite and international tournaments and World Cups abroad and domestic matches for the USA national rugby league team, ask the same questions. I have been working to increase the exposure of rugby to the minority communities for years. Other Black rugby players like myself, coach youth rugby programs in our local areas, and recruiting Black athletes in the local schools. Why would it attract Black athletes, you ask? There are no million-dollar contracts, no girls running behind you, face all over TV, not yet, but the chance to compete on the world stage. Some professional clubs offer six digit contracts to play overseas. Rugby is a game easy to pick up and quick to showcase your talent and launch yourself to the elite and professional levels. Don’t sleep on this one. Think of this the way people thought of the Internet in the early 1980s. The time is slowly approaching for the opportunity to offer itself to top notch Black athletes and Black owners, who currently don’t have a piece of the American sports pie.
Since the 1990s, the American national rugby league team (AMNRL) has represented their country and competed against other teams from Australia, Ireland, Japan, Russia, France and England.
In a effort to reach new audiences, the AMNRL has acquired the Television rights and managed the distribution of, the Australian NRL Competition; the State of Origin Series, and Australian International fixtures through Fox Sports International – A total viewing audience of over 22 million households in North America and the Caribbean will now see these games on Fox Sports World! These games produced and played at the highest level will feature advertising and promotions of the AMNRL throughout the games directing potential fans and players to the sport of American rugby league.
How can Blacks capitalize on this new sport to America and the market it will embrace?

Players, Coaches and Team Operators are being sought. Club are developing throughout the USA are now recruiting Players, Managers, Team Owners and Coaches for the upcoming season. If you are a player or interested in owning a club or just want to get involved in the organization, contact the western based US rugby league clubs at WWW.WAMNRL.COM

FOOTNOTE:In USA , there is no true professional paid rugby, that is what is beign created now with the WAMNRL and AMNRL. Overseas a player can make about U$70,000(£40,000 to £50,000(National two division in England), 60-40 split between guaranteed wages and win bonuses, depending on level of professionalism into the six digits and some in Australia bank in the low million plus. This month, New Zealand’s professional players are in a position to top the premier provincial $2 million rugby salary cap.It’s a good time to get black youth involved in this fast growing sport.
For more information about the development of professional rugby league in the America visit, >WWW.USRUGBYLEAGUE.ORG and please send your comments of interest.