Tackling Inequality Together: Play Rugby USA Is Uniting Kids Across America, On And Off The Field

An international game that builds respect and camaraderie? Sounds like the right framework for youth development. At least, that’s how Play Rugby USA founder and England native, Mark Griffin MBE, felt when he arrived in New York City.

He wasn’t wrong.

“I always say that rugby was handed to me on a plate,” Griffin says. “I was one of those kids who loved sports, and sort of went to school for sports—it took me a while to understand that there were meant to be other things going on as well,” he says with a laugh. Griffin played many different sports from an early age, but at age 12, he was elected to captain the school’s rugby team. “I continued to play other sports, but rugby became the sport that I really focused on, or trained for—that enabled me to go to a good university, which helped me to get a good job, which led me to come to America.”

Simple as that, right? No, of course not, but that through line of rugby and sports more generally not only helped to structure and guide Griffin’s decisions from an early age, it also came with a community, a support system built on the mutual trust and friendships formed on the field of play.

“You can express yourself in a physical way, but it has to be in a disciplined way.”

“I moved over to America in ’99, with a banking job, and of course played rugby as soon as I got here,” Griffin says. “I ended up playing for one of the top teams in the country, Old Blue NY, and toured all over the U.S.—it was an awesome experience to be able to experience New York and travel around the country playing rugby against different teams.” Not only that, but Griffin would go on to play for the United States national team in international competition.

“In 2003, I ended up playing for the USA National Team against England in the first ever Churchill Cup, which was a pretty big deal for me as you can imagine. That was really my ‘aha moment,’ where I stepped back and said to myself, I need to actually do something here, because rugby really has changed my life.”

Griffin was born into what he describes as a hard-working, middle-class family—a “stable structure,” in his words.

“From what I’d seen in New York at that time, having been there for four years at that point, I felt that there was a huge lack of opportunity and access for kids to play sports, and that sports were largely designed based on professionalism,” Griffin says. “It seemed to be very elitist—all about the best athletes, and all about college scholarships, and about going pro, and not about participation or youth development.”

He continues: “I knew rugby was very powerful as a vehicle for [youth development], so I thought well, if I can start offering rugby to kids who would otherwise never have that opportunity, then I know that it will have an impact. So that’s what I started doing on weekends in 2004, and then in 2006, after getting the non-profit structure sorted, I quit my banking job, and threw myself into Play Rugby USA full time.”

“It builds this basis of connection, between opponents, players, officials, coaches, and everyone that binds them together. You can go to any country in the world that plays rugby, and turn up ready to play, and be set.”

The international nature of the game, coupled with rugby’s worldwide culture of respect between opponents, make it a uniquely powerful sport in Griffin’s eyes.

“The camaraderie that you have—it’s something that everyone involved in rugby is very, very proud of. It stems from mutual respect, which is a core value of probably every rugby program you’d come across, all the way from World Rugby (the international governing body of the sport) to our organization. I think there’s a lot of respect for everyone who’s involved in the game—some of that is because of the physicality of the game, but all of that physicality is within a relatively strict framework. You can still express yourself in a physical way, but it has to be in a disciplined way.”

That exuberance within a framework fosters friendship that extends across borders.

“It builds this basis of connection, between opponents, players, officials, coaches, and everyone that binds them together. You can go to any country in the world that plays rugby, and turn up ready to play, and be set.”

He adds: “I know. I did that.”

Griffin arrived in the U.S., put on his rugby kit, and turned up at a club. Immediately, he found that he had 40 contacts, in 40 different lines of work, helping him to build a network and get set up in a new country. Thanks to the international nature of the sport, that model will work anywhere.

“I think that’s a really powerful piece of rugby, and it’s something that we certainly want our young people to take advantage of as they continue to participate in the game, through college and beyond.”

And, there’s more good news. Rugby is growing rapidly in the U.S. right now, as athletes and parents look for alternatives to American football, and with the first-ever professional rugby league (Pro Rugby USA) recently launching in major cities across the country.

“I think it’s on almost an exponential growth curve at the moment,” Griffin says. “There’s always been this core, what I call the ‘underworld’ rugby family in the U.S.—it’s such a small world, and so many of us know each other from all over the country.”

That original, tight-knit group still exists, and has grown since Griffin first arrived in the United States. But, while important, that’s only one piece of the growing puzzle.

“The part that is really starting to grow exponentially now is the broader awareness of the sport, and I think that has been driven by a few factors,” explains Griffin. “One is the fact that rugby is now formally in the Olympics—that was announced in 2009, and 2016 is the year that rugby will be back in the Olympics in the seven-a-side version of the game. I think that’s starting to mean there is more television coverage of rugby—NBC is the Olympic network, and they’re showing it. Technology is another aspect of that—it’s much easier to run across rugby, or watch rugby through streaming services.

Just as Griffin experienced, Anthony Lenos was on a track that materialized underneath him when he first picked up a rugby ball.

“The third thing, and this touches on what we’re doing, is the grass-roots level, in the youth development space. That has started more broad, mass appeal of rugby, and elevated the perception of rugby as a really top-level, high-performance sport. USA Sevens, and United World Sports have done a lot of work around that, with a collegiate rugby championship, and a varsity rugby cup, all televised on NBC. So, there’s a lot more awareness. Also, most recently, Pro Rugby announced the USA’s first professional league, and USA Rugby announced the Rugby Channel, so it seems like the stars are starting to align.”

It’s international. It’s community. It’s the future. Small wonder that Play Rugby USA, like the sport itself, is making an ever increasing impact across America.

Enter Anthony Lenos.

“I got to college having wrestled, played football, those sorts of physical things,” Lenos says. Wanting to continue to compete at a high level, but attending a Division 1 school at Ohio University (where football was out of reach), Lenos discovered rugby. It was the perfect fit: a physical, club sport that allowed him to play against other schools, but without the pressures and limitations of a varsity athlete.

Graduating with a degree in history, Lenos wanted to go into teaching, but found himself drawn to coaching. “I decided to do the Coach Across America program for a year, between undergrad and graduate school,” he says. That took him to New York, and introduced him to Play Rugby USA.

Just as Griffin experienced, Lenos was on a track that materialized underneath him when he first picked up a rugby ball.

While Lenos spent four years working in New York, Play Rugby had expanded during that time to the West Coast, in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Then, once those cities were up and running, Play Rugby USA made the move to create a full-time program development manager position in Northern California. Lenos jumped at the opportunity.

That’s not to say it has been easy, though. “Out here, I’m the only full-time staff member, so I’m effectively in charge of everything.” As of now, there hasn’t been sufficient time to build the same level of infrastructure that exists in New York, but that’s where the passionate belief in the program, and in the nature of the sport as a means to change lives, comes through the strongest.

At time of writing, Play Rugby USA has reached more than 15,000 children and young adults through their programming from coast to coast, working directly with 160 schools in New York, 115 schools in Los Angeles, and now 25 schools in the Bay Area.

It’s a lot to manage, and that’s where UpActive comes in—Play Rugby USA has been making use of both attendance metrics analytics data to better understand their organization, and make better decisions. “We’re always looking to improve the program, and one of the fundamental, basic, foundational elements of that is knowing exactly how many kids we’re working with—overall, we’ve got a pretty comprehensive monitoring and evaluation system,” Griffin says. “It has been a really helpful piece of that whole puzzle, which continues to evolve. It helps us see where research ties into outcomes.”

While Griffin and leadership drill down into the specifics as the program continues to grow and thrive across the country, Lenos has been building a broader base of knowledge and experience for himself in San Francisco. “Understanding where the high-need schools are, what neighborhoods are the high-need neighborhoods, learning all of that has been at the core of what I was doing when I arrived,” Lenos outlines. Given that knowledge, Lenos has been building a network of programs, with obvious results from the beginning—that much is evident from the 15 teams that show up to Play Rugby USA’s Bay Area tournament on Treasure Island, sitting just across the bay from San Francisco.

Not only that, but in true rugby fashion, they’re not alone: San Francisco’s Pro Rugby USA team is in attendance as well, interacting with the kids, teaching lessons on the fundamentals of the sport, and even putting on a little exhibition flag rugby game themselves, much to the delight of their audience.

Watching all these kids, some very young, some adolescents, learning together surrounded by mentors and role models—it’s hard not to see it as one big family.

Maybe that’s what Griffin was getting at, all along.

Photos and story by Bryan Kitch for the UpMetrics blog, Data for Good.

Contact us to learn more about how UpActive and UpMetrics can support your organization.

UpActive is an activity management tool used by program staff, participants, and parents to organize, track, and communicate. Data from UpActive is integrated in UpMetrics, our analytics platform, designed to help organizations measure impact, build capacity, and access funding.

For more, you can follow UpActive on Instagram and Twitter, and followUpMetrics across our website and social channels:

UpMetrics.com | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn | Blog