Rugby for all: International Gay Rugby and the Bingham Cup

Earlier this week, International Gay Rugby – formerly the International Gay Rugby Administration and Board – announced the return of the Bingham Cup to the United States, with the city of Nashville, Tenn., receiving more votes than Chicago, Ill., in the final round of the bid process.

Initially hosted as an invitational tournament by the Washington Renegades in the nation’s capital in 2001, the Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament came to be known by its current moniker following the tragic passing of Mark Bingham in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Bingham’s former club, San Francisco Fog, won the inaugural tournament in 2002 in San Francisco.

While rugby is widely known as one of the most accepting, diverse sports played around the world, there was still a lack of organization at the highest levels to ensure players’ safety and to keep discrimination within clubs and during matches to a minimum.

“IGR was founded in 2001 as an association of the primarily gay and inclusive clubs that existed throughout the world – originally as the initial clubs who attended the first tournament in Washington,” IGR Chairman Jeff Wilson said. “Those clubs were created to provide a safe space for openly-gay athletes to play the sport without any discrimination based on their orientation.

“The work of IGR clubs has helped in driving change and eliminating homophobia in sport through policy, leadership, and grassroots action. Over the years, more primarily gay and inclusive clubs have started in markets and countries that have allowed for LGBT athletes to come together and play the sport in an environment of like-minded and –oriented people.”

Since IGR’s inception, Australia, England, and Ireland have each hosted at least one Bingham Cup, with New York, N.Y., and Minneapolis, Minn., serving as hosts for the 2006 and 2010 editions, respectively. Clubs such as the Fog, Renegades, Seattle Quakes, and Sydney Convicts – current holders and four-time Bingham Cup champions – have shown the world there is a place for all in rugby.

Ahead of the USA Eagles’ match against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks in Philadelphia in 2013, the Renegades played an exhibition match against the All Deaf Rugby Club. The All Deafs featured athletes dealing with their own discrimination, and the match was played amicably by both sides.

International referee Nigel Owens – one of the best-known match officials in the history of rugby – announced he was gay just months prior to the start of the IRB Rugby World Cup 2007. The tournament was hosted by France, Scotland, and Owen’s home nation of Wales.

Owens also admitted he contemplated not “coming out,” instead considering taking his own life.

“I don’t know of any gay rugby players I could have confided in,” he told The Sun. “But I knew I couldn’t go on being unhappy and keeping the truth hidden.”

A fan in attendance at a match between England and New Zealand earlier this month at Twickenham Stadium penned a letter to the Rugby Football Union, complaining of “nasty, foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic abuse” aimed towards Owens.

Even in a stadium of more than 80,000 screaming rugby supporters, there are those who continue to exemplify how rugby should not be seen.

“While we have made leaps and bounds in certain countries with diversity and inclusion policy, there are still countries where LGBT amateur athletes are actively discriminated against at all levels of the sport and at all ages,” Wilson said.

“I think that this event is a teaching and learning opportunity for the RFU, [World Rugby], and all other national unions,” Wilson continues. “Events like these do happen all the time, and we have the opportunity to educate people, players, supporters, and officials at all levels that this type of abuse has no place in the sport. If we unify our message that homophobia and discrimination will not be tolerated by the leadership and the players, we will end up with a more inclusive sport by leading with policy and action.”

The success of the Bingham Cup, which was contested by eight teams in 2002 compared to the more than 30 in 2014, has resulted in a more competitive bidding process for the biannual tournament. Chicago and Nashville, each with their own professional bid, gave IGR a tough yet satisfying decision in selecting a host city.

“Every bidding cycle has evolved for the better [since the 2002 invitational tournament], including this year’s process,” Wilson said.

The bid process replicated professional processes like that of the International Olympic Committee to select the Host City of the Olympic Games, including a minimum criteria for bid requirements, such as operational categories, pro forma budget, and transparency and openness of discussion of the merits of each bid.

“The bid was run like a formal Request for Proposal process with intent to bid letters, multimedia presentations, formal bid documents, clarification calls, and summary statements,” Wilson said. “It was a very professional process this time around and we intend to build on it for the future.”

With rugby sevens set to make its Olympics debut at Rio 2016 and the sport garnering more coverage in non-Tier 1 nations, the future of the game will rely on athletes and supporters alike to keep the world’s most respectful game cognizant of all.

For more information on the Bingham Cup, visit the International Gay Rugby website. USA Rugby’s Diversity Statement can be found here.