Rugby and the Professionalization of DIII Sports

Welcome back to campus everybody! As we approach Homecoming in a couple weeks, I wanted to take this time to talk about something that’s very important to me: rugby. Luther rugby’s 50th anniversary is coming up, and all the alumni will be back in town over Homecoming weekend to reminisce about their glory days with old friends. But the club is dying.  Every year, it becomes harder and harder to find recruits. This is partially due to declining enrollment and other factors out of our control, but there’s one major factor holding our numbers down: the year-round activities of Luther athletes.

Athletes used to fill the ranks of Luther’s rugby teams. Football players, wrestlers, and basketball players make up quite a few of Luther’s rugby alums, as they were able to play rugby during their offseason. Women’s soccer players powered Luther women’s rugby for years. But because Luther sports now have year-round training regimens, few athletes can participate. And those who can are often dissuaded from doing so by their coaches, who are concerned about injury risk.  

It did not used to be like this. In the spring, Luther’s rugby team used to have 20-30 football players practicing, and the team was big (and good) enough to beat Division I schools like Iowa and Ohio State. But because of spring ball, that tradition has died.  

This is indicative of a larger trend among college athletics; the demanding schedule now required to play DIII sports means that athletes cannot get involved in other activities that may jeopardize their commitment to their team. A starting point guard for Luther’s basketball team has told me that one of their biggest regrets at Luther was not being able to do mock trial because of the basketball schedule. Rugby alumni who also played football have expressed shock that the commitment is now year-round.  

I do not have a specific prescription for this problem. Having a successful athletics department is beneficial to the college for many reasons, and that requires hard work. I just think that being an athlete at Luther should not stop students from trying other things they might like. I have been involved with the Luther rugby club for four years now, and I love it. I think it presents an opportunity for great exercise, cool friends, travel, and meeting interesting new people. And it makes me sad that this opportunity isn’t available to a wide proportion of the student body because they do an activity that will not let them do anything else.  

As one wise rugby alumnus put it, Luther is a place of “ands.” You’ll meet people who do choir AND rugby, or write for the student newspaper AND play the saxophone, or major in math AND play drums in a student band. But people like that are becoming rarer around here, and there aren’t many athletes in the clubs I’ve been to over the years; their schedule is prohibitive to participation in many of the amazing opportunities Luther has to offer. And frankly, that sucks.