For some students, rugby is a lot more than just a game.Fourteen boys and girls are running down the basketball court at Public and Middle School 218 in the South Bronx, N.Y. Their speed signals the intensity of the competition. Yet the nets above them on either end of the court hang idle. Instead, the children’s eyes fixate on the plastic strips at the waists of players on the opposing team. But this isn’t indoor flag football, either. They chase a ball that resembles the one New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning throws, only slightly bigger. They toss it sideways and backward, never forward. They’re playing what has become one of the most popular sports at this predominantly black and Latino school — rugby.
“Rugby shows me that in life there is not an easy path; there are different obstacles I have to go through,” says Steven Nuñez, an eighth-grader breathing loudly as he takes a break from the game.
“The game is not just that you get to run straight,” adds Jeremy Perez, another eighth-grader. “You have to avoid the other players. It’s like in life; it’s not going to be you just living your life easily without consequences. There’s always somebody to try and bring you down to stop you. You have to be ready to take on those obstacles.”
Rugby has become a tool in many inner-city neighborhoods to distract kids from peer cultures that can lead to trouble. For example, the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., specializes in teaching kids how to solve conflicts without violence. The institute is developing a partnership with Rhode Island Rebellion Rugby League, a company started by Lawrence Almagno and Anthony Nardolillo, two rugby players in their 20s. Rhode Island Rebellion’s nonprofit, American Youth Rugby League Association (AYRLA), will introduce the sport to inner-city middle school students in Providence; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia and Jacksonville, Fla. Nonprofits? like AYRLA take rugby? leagues beyond the typical white, suburban population considered to be most attracted to them. In the process, kids say they learn skills that help them when they’re not playing the game.
“Like in rugby, it’s not just pass and run; there’s a lot you got to go through,” Nuñez says. “Not an easy sport to just catch on.”
Despite the positives, it was not easy for Perez to convince his parents to let him play. They are typical of many Dominican-American families in the Bronx — big baseball fans. “My father really wanted me to play baseball, and rugby was OK until I missed a baseball practice because I was at a rugby tournament. He got really mad when I told him rugby was more important to me than baseball.”
The elder Perez thought his son’s slim build was more suited for the American pastime than the foreign sport with the rough reputation. Although he’s playing flag rugby now, Jeremy is already excited about moving up to tackling, which comes with contact rugby in many high school programs.
“I don’t think it is violent because you can’t kick, elbow people, punch people with your arms,” he says. “A lot of athletes have bruises and scratches in other sports. In hockey they let you just punch it out until one of them falls on the floor. In football they’re tackling too. Rugby, they’re not punching, kicking anything; they’re just grabbing them like that and using their shoulders to take them down. Rugby tackles are safer. It really is not fair to think of the sport as football without pads or protection.”