College eligibility rules: an ongoing discussion

With recent concerns from the USA Rugby community about collegiate eligibility rules and their application to U.S. Military personnel, I sat down with USA Rugby Director of College Rugby Rich Cortez to talk about the player eligibility rules and the effort being made by some people to revise them.

To fully understand the rationale behind current eligibility rules, it's important to first read this short article that was produced by the College Eligibility Committee when the rules were initially adopted.

"Teams now have the resources to actively recruit student athletes that specifically fit these regulatory exceptions and thereby potentially gain a competitive advantage," wrote the former Collegiate Eligibility Committee Chair. "While clearly that was not the intent of the existing regulations, that is the reality of today's college rugby world.

"While the issues are clearly identifiable, finding a suitable solution is much more difficult."

After several long phone conversations, the following is a summary of the points that Rich spoke about:

  • There currently is a push to revise the rules governing college eligibility. A petition with several hundred signatures has been submitted to USA Rugby. The proposal on the table is that for every year of military service, a player gains back a year of eligibility. The intent of the petitioners is to give full college eligibility to military members who leave active duty to attend college and play rugby.
  • Requests for eligibility exceptions are reviewed and approved or denied by The College Eligibility Committee. The current members of the Committee are Rich Cortez, Michele Yarbrough, James Fonda, and Alan Osur.
  • The Committee also reviews eligibility rules annually based on input from membership, and the number of waiver requests received for a certain kind of activity; such as military service, church service, or injury. When needed, the Eligibility Committee makes recommendations to the College Management Council. The Management Council reviews all recommendations and makes decisions about changes to eligibility. If warranted, the Council creates the language for the rule revision.
  • Current members of the College Management Council are Pete Seccia (Chair), Kevin Battle, Craig Brown, James Farrar, Nancy Kechner, Bill Lucas, Ellen Owens, MaryBeth Mathews, Bill Sexton, Matt Trenary, Michele Yarborough, Gray Zischke and Alex Magleby (Male Int. Athlete).
  • The selection process to serve on the CMC will soon be changing to an election whereby CMC representatives will be elected from at least 8 regions throughout the country, by those regions individually. The elected Council members will be expected to represent the teams in their regions (men & women, all divisions) but act in the best interests of the college game from a national viewpoint.

After explaining the structure and function of the committee and council, Cortez went on to explain their challenges. A significant issue that impacts the development of eligibility rules is the cost and complexity of administering the rules. To illustrate this, consider this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the eligibility rules were very general and only two conditions must be met:

  1. Must be registered as a full time student
  2. Maximum of 5 years of eligibility for college rugby

On face value, these rules sound reasonable. The problem is; how could the rules be enforced? Imagine the cost and effort that would be required to research each player and confirm their eligibility.

Some students will have taken college classes at community colleges, or colleges that do not offer a rugby program. There will be students who waited years to start college after graduating high school and who may be substantially older than most college rugby players. There will be former military students and some of them will have attended college while on active duty. There will be foreign students of various ages who come here on student visas.

Based on a quick tally, the number of athletes petitioning for eligibility would potentially reach in the thousands. The question may not be should these athletes be eligible, but who would be responsible for verifying their status. With such broad rules for eligibility, it would be difficult for the committee and council in its current state to be responsible for screening thousands of players every year.

Currently, USA Rugby and the Universities themselves do not have the budget or personnel that would be necessary to research the eligibility of large numbers of players. Thus, the rules that the council develops must be developed so that they can easily be understood by everyone involved, and applied effectively.

Cortez emphasized that the Committee will always consider the best ways to ensure fairness and player welfare in the rapidly changing and competitive environment that is today's collegiate rugby.

Cortez believes that "the discussion about college eligibility is healthy," assuring me that the College Management Council recognizes that the rules may need to be adjusted from time to time, and will surely be in discussion in the coming weeks.

"The College Management Council is open to changes as the game evolves," said Cortez.

Collegiate eligibility is the newest hot-button discussion in a sea of change in American college rugby. With growth comes growing pains, and USA Rugby will need to continue to adapt and be open to change. Cortez and the entire College Management Council are aware of the difficulties with college eligibility but know there are steps to be taken and are open to their options.

What are your thoughts? How does USA Rugby solve the issue of keeping guidelines fair with given resources?

Dave McFadden is a writer and independent contributor to Email him at