By Dan Woog
When the women’s rugby college championship playoffs take place this month in Sanford, Fla., many top teams will wear jerseys prominently displaying the Army National Guard logo. When winners are determined at next month’s finals at Stanford University, they’ll pose under an enormous banner thanking the Guard for its support.
The Army National Guard is the primary sponsor of the collegiate tournaments. Without the Guard’s donation of uniforms, practice and game balls, field flags, practice cones, goal post pads and more, many club teams – notoriously poorly funded by their schools – would not exist.
As part of the United States Armed Forces, the Guard adheres to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – the only federal law that mandates firing a person because of sexual orientation. Yet many of the colleges competing in what is officially called the National Guard Division I and II Women’s Collegiate Playoffs and Championship – including host Stanford – include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies.
“My program wrestles with this,” admits the coach of one of the nation’s best teams, who requested anonymity because of the controversial nature of the subject. “The National Guard presence at the tournaments is huge. We have to stand in front of a big sign with their logo on it. The Guard is out there recruiting at these tournaments” – though, she laughs, “not particularly well.”
The coach says,
“We’re not supposed to associate with organizations that discriminate. But we have to. It’s a devil’s choice. Without the National Guard we wouldn’t have a national championship. They fund the lion’s share of it. They’ve stepped up big time, and no one else has.”
The coach’s team does not wear jerseys provided by the National Guard, with the requisite logo. “We’re poor – we have to raise all our own funds – but we’re not so poor that I’ll sell out my kids or our university policy,” she explains.
Other major colleges, including Yale, are outfitted by the Guard.”I don’t understand it,” the coach says. “They play in National Guard gear, they wrap their goalposts in the Guard logo – and their school has a nondiscrimination policy!”
Before the tournament, the coach considered adding the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network logo to her team’s uniforms as a silent protest. Yet the SLDN itself downplayed the controversy.
“The National Guard didn’t write ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” says Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the organization working to end the statute. “It’s not their law. Congress owns it; the National Guard and other services have been ordered to implement it.”
Sarvis believes it is “entirely appropriate” for the Guard to sponsor the women’s rugby college championships. “We don’t second-guess the National Guard, Army or Navy,” he says. “The athletic activities they sponsor are up to them.” Various branches of the armed forces underwrite a variety of events at many levels. In addition to rugby, the National Guard sponsors NASCAR racers, as well as college bass-fishing competitions.
Kerri Heffernan, who as coach of the Brown University team leads one of the most successful programs in the country, agrees in large part with Sarvis. “The National Guard is not the problem. Brown has a non-discrimination policy. It’s important for our team to respect that policy, which is a statement about inclusion and fairness – and at times that position costs the university some support.
“We’re not forbidden from associating with the National Guard, and we don’t sneer at the Guardsmen. I just don’t believe as a coach – and an agent of my university – that I have the liberty to accept National Guard sponsorship.”
Heffernan continues: “I suppose you could make an argument that Brown should fall on our sword, and not participate in any Guard-sponsored events. But I try to walk the best line I can. I appreciate that the National Guard funds the tournament, but Brown women will not accept any Guard sponsorship for our team.”
On the eve of this year’s national tournament, the anonymous coach remains conflicted. Noting a lack of discussion in the women’s rugby world about National Guard sponsorship, she says, “I think our financial positions, and our positions in our universities and on the larger sports stage, are so precarious that we’re falling in line, because we want our athletes to get the recognition they deserve, and our sport to get the respect it deserves.
“Rugby now is at the high school and youth level. There’s less drinking and partying. My athletes have serious aspirations about winning a national championship. With that comes tough choices about who to get in bed with, both literally and figuratively.”
She pauses. “At the same time, I wish universities would be more thoughtful about the ways in which we align ourselves with our own non-discrimination policies.”