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What Kind of Woman Coaches Men's Rugby?

What kind of woman coaches men's rugby? One who is crazy enough to believe that it can work, she said. Our students are ready to believe in us. Now we have to believe in ourselves.

One day in January 2009 a student came into the office of Dr. Annemarie Farrell, assistant professor of sport management and media at Ithaca College NY.

He said the men’s rugby team, kicked off campus for its bad behavior in the early 1990s, was trying to make a comeback and needed a coach. People had suggested that they talk to her.

She offered the names of several men in the community whom they could ask. The student clarified that actually they were asking her to coach them. Astounded, she told him to go back and talk to the team about their thoughts on having a woman coach. “I assumed I’d never see him again,” she told WIHE.

He soon brought back the team’s response: No disrespect, but we don’t know why you’re so hung up on gender. She realized that they were right. She knew how to coach rugby. The rules for women and men are the same. Any gender problem about her coaching their team was in her head, not theirs.

The current team was an unofficial collection of male students who loved to play rugby. Without college sanction, they couldn’t use college facilities or put up posters looking for players. There were limits on competing against teams from other colleges. They wanted Farrell to help them to play and get reinstated as a club sport on campus.

Farrell first met with the rugby men in February 2009, when 30 students showed up, eager to play and not at all concerned about being coached by a woman.

She laid down strict ground rules. Regaining recognition as a club sport meant shedding their old alcohol-blurred image. There would be no hazing and no parties after games.

Players represented their college on and off the field. They needed to dress, look and act like a team. Anyone who retaliated against another was off the team. “Retaliation has no moral value,” she told them.

The students happily agreed. They were trying to overcome rugby’s rowdy reputation, not revive it. Meanwhile they were paying the penalty for events that had occurred when they were toddlers.

She went to the administration and made the case. After 16 years of banishment, men’s rugby officially returned to campus under her leadership.

Forty years after Title IX

Passed in 1972, Title IX—prohibiting sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funding—has radically changed gender assumptions about athletics.

Farrell was born six years after Title IX became law. “I was never told I couldn’t play,” she said. As an incoming freshman at Mount Holyoke College MA, her goal was a career in softball. A group of seniors recruited her to play rugby and she fell in love with the game. It was unique for women in that it was a full-body-contact sport. “Finally I could hit someone without getting chastised,” she quipped.

Attending a women’s college taught her to be bold. All the student leaders she saw were women. She learned at Mount Holyoke that if the world is going to change, it will be women who do it.

Later during college a car accident left her with severe injuries. That ended her playing potential but not her love of the sport, so she switched into coaching in her senior year. During graduate school in sport and exercise management at Ohio State University, where for her dissertation she researched the reasons women don’t watch women’s sports, she coached the forwards on OSU’s women’s rugby team.

After completing her PhD at Ohio State and joining the Ithaca College NY faculty in 2006, she sought out other coaching opportunities. A man was already coaching the college women’s rugby team. So she looked beyond her campus into the community.

That first year she was head coach for women’s rugby at nearby Cornell University NY. Later she coached an adult women’s team in the community. “I love the sport. I love seeing a 36-year-old make a tackle for the first time in her life,” she said.

Meanwhile she was gaining national management experience with the USA Rugby Women’s National Team. It’s always a good thing for people who teach sports management to interact with practitioners and get their hands dirty, she explained. Her work from 2007 to 2011 as manager of the Women’s World Cup squad included setting up and running international matches, team tours and player camps.

Despite her extensive experience, she was coaching men for the first time. “I put up more barriers than they did about whether this would work,” she said.

But it is working. The players practice hard and learn fast. Parents and alums are excited and supportive. The team finished the 2011 season undefeated and played in the Division III National Final Four championship. In spring 2013 they will tour Ireland to play against three Irish university teams.

Why does it work?

Farrell identified four factors that help her to succeed as a woman coaching men.

1. Knowledge matters. She brought extensive experience with collegiate and national rugby as a player, coach and manager. Few women or men at most colleges would bring that quality of experience.

2. Unusual sport. Men’s rugby presents a unique opportunity. Few high schools have rugby teams, so the college students who play are engaged in a new experience. “I wouldn’t be embraced by men’s basketball or football teams,” she said.

3. Different sports culture. Most college men’s rugby players come from a background in high school football or wrestling. “They have learned some really terrible lessons about what it means to be a man. Pain is not weakness leaving your body,” she said. Having seen how sports injuries break bodies, her players appreciate the positive sports culture she represents as she rewrites their athletic experience. 

4. Personal style. “My coaching pedagogy and humor get me through a lot,” she said. Players appreciate her humor, passion and understanding. Some credit her youth and gender with helping her connect personally with students.

Doing the right thing

“I’m witnessing a cultural change. I’ve never had a bad experience with the players because of gender,” she said. Some have told her the best athlete in their family was a sister. Some learned to play catch from their mothers.

College-age men get a bad rap these days, she said. Although some behave badly, especially in high-profile varsity sports, club sports have a healthier educational climate. For example, every player plays every weekend, whether or not he’s any good. And the men she knows in club sports are doing their part to do the right thing.

As part of a strong alumni response, one former student player made a large donation to the college for men’s rugby. “It was 80% of our budget, the most ever given to any sport at Ithaca College,” she said.

She met with her players and explained Title IX. They responded, “If we have money and the women don’t, that’s unfair.” No difficult soul-searching; no debate. They cut a check for half the amount to give to the women’s rugby team. Then they went back to the donor and got additional money to split with the women.

Their experience as a club sport—second class compared to varsity—helps her players to understand the experience of women student athletes. Rugby men get kicked off the field when the football team wants to practice. When they complain, she reminds them that women’s teams have always had to put up with that sort of treatment.

Some day they may have daughters, she tells them. If they all keep doing the right thing, the world will be a better place for their daughters. They get it. “I’m constantly amazed by how thoughtful and reflective these men are,” she told WIHE.

Attitudes and knowledge

In preparation for her talk in Ann Arbor in May 2012, she surveyed her players about Title IX and coaches’ gender. While 20% had no clue about Title IX, other responses were encouraging.

What is Title IX?

  • “It’s about money.”
  • “Rights for equal opportunities.”
  • “The same number of teams.”
  • “It’s a law in history.”

Where did you learn about Title IX?

  • “My coaches gave us information.”
  • “It’s a huge part of my sisters’ lives so it’s important to me.”
  • “My mom was a great track runner.”
  •  “We had a lot of women gym teachers.”
  • “It’s something to talk about with women athletes since it is a shared interest.”

What’s the difference between women and men coaches?

  • “Gender doesn’t mean anything.”
  • “The coach’s personality determines the team’s culture.”
  • “All we care is, can you lead us to nationals?”
  • “Coaches need to rule by respect and not by fear.”
  • “Women coaches scream less.”
  • “Women coaches are more task oriented and less critical of individuals.”
  • “Women care more about injuries. You don’t let us punch people.”

Her survey on the men’s attitudes complemented her earlier studies of the attitudes of women student athletes. It has credibility because she also teaches sports management. After answering it, the 20-year-old team captain emailed her: “Hey, coach. This sounds really interesting. I hope it leads to more women coaches.”

Women coaching men

While her students largely disregard her gender, a 350-pound player nicknamed “Shrek” stood behind her at first to protect her from the opposing players. She told him to back off.

When they play other college teams, opposing coaches comment on her being the only woman around. “We heard about you. We’re trying to figure out how a chick could control all those dudes,” they say.

She’s one of only two women coaching men’s rugby in the United States today. While Title IX did wonders for women student athletes, its impact on women coaches has not been so good. Only 2% of head coaches in men’s sports are women, the same as when Title IX was passed 40 years ago. Most are in individual sports such as tennis, swimming and track.

In contrast, most college women’s teams have male head coaches, an unintended consequence of Title IX. In intercollegiate sports, more than 90% of women’s teams had women head coaches in 1972, before Title IX. Most were gym teachers who also coached. Today only 42.9% of women’s teams are coached by women; that’s 57.1% by men.

While the percentages deteriorate, the absolute number of women head coaches of women’s teams (almost 4,000) is at an all-time high and rising because of the increase in women’s teams. About 20% of all NCAA teams have women as head coaches.

A longitudinal study by Dr. Vivian Acosta and Dr. Linda Jean Carpenter of Brooklyn College NY found that women coaches are more likely to be hired if the athletics director is a woman. At Division I schools with a male AD and no women anywhere in athletic administration, only 25% of women’s teams have a female as head coach.

Farrell thinks that may be about to change, with club sports leading the way. Out of the varsity limelight, these students care less about their coach’s gender and more about who can lead them to the nationals. They are carrying forward the legacy of Title IX.

What kind of woman coaches men’s rugby? One who is crazy enough to believe that it can work, she said. Our students are ready to believe in us. Now we have to believe in ourselves.

Contact her at aferrell@ithaca.edu  or 607.274.5783


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, September). What Kind of Woman Coaches Men’s Rugby? Women in Higher Education, 20(9), p. 20-21.

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