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Who Are the Rugby Sanctions Protecting?

By Judy Mann
Wednesday, November 10, 1999; Page C15

Suppose the staff of the student newspaper at Imallright University, a fanciful college in Podunk, came to Washington for a journalism conference, and suppose they went to the Lincoln Memorial.

It's a clear, fall day, warm as can be, and they are full of high spirits as only college kids hitting the big city can be. Circulation at their newspaper is sagging (because of the fact that everyone on campus is plugged into the Internet,) so these media moguls in-waiting are facing the question publishers are facing everywhere: How do you boost circulation? Do you sharpen up news, or do you dumb down content? Being college kids raised on TV and computers, these young people borrow a page from the Book of Rupert Murdoch and opt to jazz up the visuals. Enough of the beefcake football players running for a touchdown. The women on the staff of the newspaper, the Daily Self-Esteem, decide to strut their stuff and take it off, making their own little run for glory. So on that dazzling Saturday afternoon, a dozen female Daily Self-Esteem editors and reporters go topless at the Lincoln Memorial while the staff photographer takes pictures.

What do you think might have happened to these entrepreneurial young ladies?

My guess is that 12 half-naked journalism students probably wouldn't attract that much attention. Had the picture hit the wires, that might be a different story. The dean of undergraduate affairs, Randy Meechley, surely would have called in Professor Arthur Twaddle, the Daily Self-Esteem's faculty adviser, to find out how this happened and where he'd been. Fortunately, Professor Twaddle had an airtight alibi: He'd been touring the newsroom of The Washington Post. Dean Meechley knows he can trample the First Amendment with complete impunity on a university campus, so he orders Professor Twaddle to confiscate the film and bring it promptly to him so that it never will see the light of day -- outside his office, of course. And that's likely to be the end of the story.

Quite a different outcome occurred, however, when at least 12 members of the Ohio State women's rugby team went topless at the Lincoln Memorial on a lovely Saturday afternoon. Being rugby players, they're entitled to do some wild and crazy things. A Post photographer, who was nearby covering a Pagan ritual, took a picture of the backs of the topless players that was published, and officials at Ohio State suspended the team from practice and from two games. After meeting with members of the 37-woman team, however, the school's vice president for student affairs, David Williams, revoked the suspension. "I think they were very apologetic, they realize they did something that was an embarrassment to the university," Williams told the Lantern, the student newspaper.

The women's coach, John Moore, who was present at the memorial but did not know of their plans, has come to their defense. He says today's young women athletes "feel the same kind of spirit" that Brandi Chastain felt after she kicked the goal that won the World Cup for the women's U.S. soccer team. These acts are proud and exuberant expressions of female athletic power that we are going to see more of.

Athletes are held to a different standard on campuses where they pull in huge amounts of revenue. In some cases, it might be a higher standard, and in some cases, it will be a lower one as we've seen in some of the notorious cases of athletes assaulting women.

These young women did not break any law.

Back on campus in Columbus, there is chatter about what went on Saturday -- but it's not about the shirts vs. skins controversy. The buzz has to do with news reports that officials in the athletics department, upset about a story on the football team that was printed in the Lantern, took 7,500 copies of the newspaper and dumped them in a trash bin. This act, which occurred on the same Saturday as the rugby team's photo op, involves destruction of property and loss of revenue, because advertisers aren't going to pay for an issue that's circulating in a trash bin.

Chad Schroeder, marketing associate for the athletics department, had asked the newspaper the previous day not to distribute its First Down football review because he thought the cover portrayed the team in a negative light. Athletics Director Andy Geiger said that "the newspapers should not have been put in the Dumpster," and that Schroeder made a mistake, but will not face any disciplinary action.

You don't have to be a wizard to detect the difference in treatment accorded the women rugby players vs. an adult, male school official in the athletics department. Given the kid-glove treatment he received, it would have been the height of hypocrisy for Ohio State to enforce the suspension of the rugby team.

The women's story, unfortunately, doesn't end all that well. The same night university officials lifted the suspension, the Midwest Rugby Union, the regional governing body for rugby clubs, barred the women's team from competition for the rest of the season. Because the team will miss its two remaining regular season games, it will be ineligible for postseason play and may be placed on probation for the spring season. That's pretty heavy-handed, even for rugby players.

Tom Rooney, Ohio collegiate coordinator for the union, said: "We felt that the girls needed some punishment even though they broke no laws."

Girls? Thank you, Mr. In Loco Parentis. Matt Hull, president of the Ohio Rugby Union, offered the priceless commentary that the players' actions had unfairly given the sport a bad image: "It was a silly thing to do and not what we would want to promote rugby."

For the women, being accused of damaging rugby's image must feel like being called ugly by a frog. The truth is that the young women's prank has done more to put rugby on the sports map than anything in memory. They didn't trash any bars, destroy any property or break any laws. They just had some fun -- and gave the rest of us a good laugh, too.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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