Two seasons ago, the Catholic University rugby team made it all the way to the round of 16 in the NCAA Division I tournamentone of the smallest schools to ever get so far. But this year, Catholic won’t even field a side. Officially, anyway.
Oh, the players are still around, and they’re still practicing three days a week and playing on weekends, same as ever. A band of Catholic University students sporting Catholic University colors even matched up against the Penn Quakers in Philadelphia on Saturday, in fact, in what the kids refer to as the beginning of their spring season. To the higher powers at Catholic, however, that game didn’t happen, because the team doesn’t exist. It’s been excommunicated.
The student ruggers now find themselves caught in the middle of a scrum between Cynthia Mauris, Catholic’s director of campus programs, and Tom Walsh, the coach and founder of the school’s rugby program. Mauris, an alum of the Northeast D.C. college, has been working at the school 19 years, and her job lets her control most of the extracurricular activities available to Catholic students; Walsh is the patron saint of Catholic University rugby. A lawyer by trade, he began molding the club in his spare time in the mid-’80s, and after retiring from a staff position on Capitol Hill, Walsh made rugby his full-time job, albeit an unpaid one.
Current and former players contend that Mauris never embraced the rugby team, which had a reputation around campus as a wild and crazy bunch. And as the squad improved over the years and its popularity among the tightknit student body (approximately 2,500) increased, Mauris did a poor job of hiding her distaste, they say. She began openly campaigning for Walsh’s removal in 1996, after a barroom brawl at Kitty O’Shea’s Irish Pub, a brawl magnet on 12th Street NE, not far from campus. Walsh was at the bar when the fight broke out, and Catholic rugby players were allegedly among the punch throwers. A member of the school’s swim team was beaten badly in the melee. Because it happened off campus, the incident didn’t fall under Mauris’ jurisdiction, but
she got involved anyway, according to the players.
“Cynthia Mauris called me in the office once and told me, ‘You guys aren’t a sportyou’re a fraternity,’” says Vinnie Giordano, a star on Catholic’s 1997 squad who now lives in Chicago. “I was at the bar when all this happened, and I know that Tom had absolutely nothing to do with it, and [Mauris] knows that. But he’s a single guy who’s devoted basically his whole life to the rugby team and its players, a real ‘man’s man’ kind of guy, and she doesn’t understand him, and she’s got it in for him. That’s a shame, because there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his players, and he knows the game more than anybody I’ve ever met. But she doesn’t care about the good side. She just figured that if she got rid of Tom Walsh, the team would just go away.”
As things turned out, getting rid of Walsh wasn’t going to be so simple. Mauris couldn’t technically fire Walsh, because the rugby coach was an unsalaried volunteer and not subject to firing. Like tears on a crucifix, however, a new rule miraculously appeared in the Catholic student handbook last year that gave the administration the power to pick coaches of club sports.
Walsh knew that he was the focus of the new policy, but rather than walking away from the program he had built and playing the sacrificial lamb, he played by the rulessort of. He let an assistant be listed as the rugby team’s head coach, but continued running the show. “The school took a punitive action against the rugby team and portrayed it as a general action,” says Walsh. “If Cynthia Mauris has got something against me, she should say what it is and not take it out on the players to get at me.”
Not to be outdone, Mauris decided to basically throw out the rule book before this school year. She called players to her office and told them that either they disassociated themselves from Walsh or she would kill the only Division I athletic program the university had. When Mauris declined to spell out to them why Walsh should be fired, they told her they would stand by their man.
“At the meeting, we kept asking why we shouldn’t have interaction with Tom’Tell us why! Tell us why!’but she never would say,” says Tim Murphy, one of the few seniors playing this year. “She handed us papers drawn up by lawyers, and told us that she knows that Walsh is still involved because ‘people’ have been watching us. She is a powerful person at Catholic, and I left that meeting feeling like she had launched a sneak attack, using all her power and lawyers, just to try to get students to be disloyal to a guy who has been so loyal to all his players through the years, a guy who built up a national-caliber program basically by himself. I couldn’t believe she would treat us that way. I guess she was relying on the chapter of the handbook that says, ‘We can do whatever the hell we want to the students.’”
When the players declined to meet her demands, Mauris followed through on her threat to kick the team off campus, cut off all funding, and take away the privileges that go with being a recognized student organization, such as use of billboards and the right to hold group functions on school grounds. “They wouldn’t even let me use a Gatorade jug to hold water for our practices, even though there are stacks of them down in the trainers’ room that nobody ever uses,” says Steve Tanghe, a sophomore from Minnesota and the new president of the rugby club. The university contacted the various local, regional, and national sanctioning bodies of rugby, informing them that Catholic University no longer had a team. Unless something changes, Walsh’s boys won’t be eligible for any more NCAA tournaments.
But, even if there’s no brass ring up for grabs, the players still plan to complete this year’s schedule as an independent club team, Catholic Rugby. They keep their practice locations a secret, out of a genuine fear that if the university finds out where the sessions are held, officials will either pressure the landowner to kick the rugby players off the property, or buy it up. Think those fears are foolish? Well, the purge has already gotten so absurd that Murphy actually received a letter from the school earlier this year advising him that rugby players had been spotted on campus wearing Catholic University rugby clothing, and asking him to not wear such garb in the future.
“If you’re not working for the gas company, you shouldn’t wear a gas-company uniform,” says Mauris, rationalizing the clothing restrictions placed on the rugby team. She doesn’t mention, however, that the campus bookstore still sells Catholic University rugby paraphernalia. Mauris confirms that Walsh’s continued affiliation with the rugby team was the primary reason the club was decertified, adding that as long as Walsh is involved, “the school won’t have a rugby team, and the students know that.” She will not, however, disclose why she has taken such an intractable stance, saying she is “keeping the matter confidential because I want to keep it confidential.” (Walsh, who still holds his law license, says he has asked Mauris to go public with her case against him, but she won’t.)
Walsh says he’s not going to leave until the team wants him to go, and right now it clearly wants him to stay. Some of his players came to Catholic because of the reputation of the rugby program. Without funding or easy access to the student body, there’s no way the new kids will be able to repeat the glories of past teams during their very finite run as undergrads. Just fielding a competitive squad will get more and more difficult. But they’re going to give it the old college try.
“We want to be in good standing with the school, to get in better communication with the administration, to get beyond this thing and get back to the tradition of Catholic University rugby, a tradition that Tom Walsh started,” says Tanghe. “But we also want to know what’s going on.”
At the spring season opener, Catholic Rugby fell behind 20-0 in the first half but came back to beat Penn in the closing seconds by just a point. Players attributed the win to strategic adjustments made at halftime by “Coach Walsh.”Dave McKenna