‘Rugby was a lifeline’: Bipoc group seeks to establish game in US Black colleges

As the USA play the All Blacks in Washington, a nonprofit named in part for the league great Clive Sullivan aims to install the oval ball at Howard, Morgan State, Bowie State and UDC

When the USA and New Zealand kick-off on Saturday at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Football Team, Carille Guthrie will look on with passionate interest.

Though Guthrie is president of a foundation which aims to grow rugby in historically Black colleges and universities around DC, she will not be at the game. Thanks to her work for the state department, she is currently based in Sri Lanka.

But a delegation from Howard University, the historic Washington HBCU which is alma mater to Vice-President Kamala Harris, will be in the stands at the NFL stadium, representing a fledgling men’s and women’s rugby programme backed by the nonprofit Guthrie helped launch.

“It was in the pandemic,” Guthrie says. “Somebody somewhere started a Bipoc [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] rugby Facebook group. It was just a bunch of players of color, and we’re just riffing off of each other because nobody’s playing rugby at the time. And somebody posted that, you know, ‘Why don’t more HBCUs have teams?’

“And I really wasn’t doing anything at the time. And because of the blossom in video technology that the pandemic created, I was like, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter that I’m in Sri Lanka, I could get this going from abroad.’ So I started talking to a few people.

“One guy in particular, Tosan Tutse-Tonwe, he and I … developed a focus group from that Bipoc Facebook group, and we just bounced ideas off each other, and we picked the name.”

It is a name with great resonance among history-minded fans of rugby league as well as union: the James G Robertson & Clive Sullivan Rugby Foundation, RSRF for short.

Robertson played union in Scotland in the late 19th century and is thought to be the first Black man to play rugby. Sullivan, who died in 1985, was a giant of league, the 13-man game, a star for Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers and the first Black captain of any British national team.

“We wanted to pick influential Black players in rugby history,” Guthrie says. “The original name somebody threw out was Robertson, and we did some research on him. Just the fact that he was playing in the 1800s was like, ‘Wow’, you know? And somebody said, ‘What about Sullivan? He was influential as well.’

“Hopefully, as we go further down the line we can offer a Robertson scholarship and a Sullivan scholarship, for team leadership and individual achievements, so we can honor them even more.”

RSRF has a three-year plan, under which it intends to establish and help fund men’s and women’s rugby union teams at Howard, Morgan State, Bowie State and the University of the District of Columbia. Funding is donor-driven but corporate involvement is sought.

Success would mean a new generation of Americans finding rugby by a more direct route than most. In a huge country where rugby is everywhere but a first-choice sport almost nowhere, Guthrie’s own experience in finding the game, in the early 2000s, sounds familiar.

“I grew up in Chicago and rugby wasn’t a thing there,” she says. “I was a track star in high school. But when I went to Tufts University, that’s when I switched from track and field to rugby.

“I was double majoring in chemical engineering and French, which was horrible. It wasn’t going well. In the cafeteria, there were flyers for rugby, and I didn’t really know what it was. And of course, the internet was not really what it is today. But I decided, ‘Well, let me just show up and see what they’re all about.’ And the rugby team was a lifeline in my final semester at the school, because I was kind of just spiraling and they were a little bit of sunshine.”

Guthrie transferred to Howard. There wasn’t any rugby there, so she joined the Maryland Stingers, a club that cemented her love for the game.

Rugby’s unique bond, she says, is founded on controlled aggression and co-operative effort, and as such “is universal. Every time I move to a new city, and I’ve moved to three or four in the US, I find the local rugby team and that is immediately my new family. I don’t have to join a book club. I know if I join the local rugby team I will have a new group of friends who are like-minded, that I can hang with.”

The Bipoc rugby community is not confined to Facebook. This year saw the playing return of the HBCU Classic, an annual tournament, after a year off to wait out Covid. Guthrie hopes RSRF can help the event thrive, diversify and perhaps even relocate.

“Up until last year,” she says, “the women’s teams didn’t exist. The last Classic was in May of this year and Prairie View A&M showed up and had a women’s team so they played against Roots, which is a Bipoc social team.

“So unfortunately Howard can’t say that they’re the first official HBCU women’s team but we are the first to play a collegiate game” – a win over Johns Hopkins this month – “[and] the the goal of the HBCU Classic is to get everybody together.”


Martin Pengelly in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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