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Debt collectors, dodgy turf and medical bills: the brutal realities of life in MLR

May 13, 2023

The US pro rugby league is a start-up scrapping for its place in the sports world. But those at the sharp end pushing for a union have met opposition from owners

One year ago, Mark O’Keefe helped the Austin Gilgronis clinch their first Major League Rugby playoff place. The center and his teammates were elated. But just before they bussed two-and-a-half hours south-east to Houston for their final game of the regular season, their coach, Sam Harris, called a meeting.

"After beating San Diego, rumors started to circulate about our season ending prematurely," O’Keefe said. "So the lads had a pretty bad feeling."

Harris broke the news: the Gilgronis were disqualified. The following week, their sibling team, the Los Angeles Giltinis (also owned by and named for an Australian entrepreneur, Adam Gilchrist) was also barred from the postseason, the league citing unspecified rules violations.

Both franchises were liquidated. Shortly thereafter, O’Keefe and other players began receiving calls from debt collectors.

In MLR, where the salary cap is demonstrably lower than in other US professional sports leagues, team owners supplement contracts with housing stipends and other benefits.

"My credit score has taken a 120-point nose dive because team ownership stopped paying our rent," O’Keefe said. "The team was responsible for actually paying the rent. I only put my name down on our lease as the tenant."

In late October, after months of league silence, the LA and Austin players were informed of a dispersal and expansion draft two weeks later. Players were required to enter the draft, unable to negotiate outside it, if they wanted to play at the start of the next season.

"We were at the whim of the league," said Bryce Campbell, the current US Eagles captain, a center for London Irish and Austin, now with the Chicago Hounds. "We sat there for months, unable to negotiate with other teams, and got no say in how things unfolded."

Throughout the player base, there was an understanding that the situation was unacceptable. On 11 May, the United States Rugby Players Association (USRPA), launched #RugbyUnionNow, an effort to unionize the roughly 450 players in MLR.

The campaign, which has representatives from every team and support from unions including the NFLPA and MLSPA, has three main demands: contract security, better working conditions and league-provided healthcare.

The USRPA has asked for voluntary recognition, said its board chair, the former New York lock Nick Civetta, but is prepared to file for an election if necessary.

"We have a strong supermajority of the players ready to join the union," Civetta said.

The MLR chief executive, Nic Benson, said: "We respect the rights MLR players have to consider union membership, but we also feel that unionization at this moment could have a profound and lasting impact on our league

"… We also think it is important for our players to consider all the facts about unionization and collective bargaining, and benefit from hearing the position of MLR owners, coaches, and other leaders."

MLR, now in its sixth season, is the most successful pro rugby venture in US history. With 12 teams including a Canadian franchise, it has created an opportunity for Americans to play professionally at home.

"I’d be lying if I said I dreamed about being a professional rugby player as a little kid," said Jack Iscaro, a prop for Old Glory DC. "Because that wasn't an option. Now I get paid to play in the town I grew up in, and I couldn't be more grateful."

But, players said, the league hasn't always treated them like professionals. Players rely on workers’ compensation for all serious medical needs, which they say often leads to prolonged waits for surgeries and results. Furthermore, coverage only exists during the season, meaning that for up to half a calendar year, players are without healthcare. In-season, if a player sustains an injury while released to play club rugby, they are expected to secure healthcare themselves.

Players are often expected to perform on turf.

"My first season [playing] with New York was on a 30- or 40-year-old high school football field that was hard as a rock," said Civetta, who recently retired. "It took many ACLs and ankles, and helped dislocate my AC joint."

The call for "safer working conditions", such as playing on grass, might sound ironic when discussing 30 men bashing into each other for 80 minutes. But it's a genuine concern for those playing on artificial turf often covered with non-rugby lines.

Contract security is front-of-mind too. Players typically have no say in who they play for. After the six-month season, teams hold a player's rights for the rest of the calendar year. The most common way to switch teams is via sign-and-trade.

Nick Boyer began 2021 in LA before being traded to Houston.

"I’ve spent nearly my entire life establishing myself in California, and then right before the season starts, I get traded with little explanation as to why," the scrum-half said. "Players want to stay and become faces of franchises and be pillars in their community, but they can't because the league doesn't treat them that way."

Some players are signed to a second-tier "associate player contracts", which pay $15 per hour. Given the time investment, players said, APCs effectively pay less than minimum wage. Moreover, there are no protections against being dropped.

In a young league without deep coffers, growing pains are to be expected. Players stressed they understood that, and so were not currently demanding higher pay. Instead, the USRPA is focusing on contract security and healthcare.

"The players aren't greedy or naive," Iscaro said.

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The USRPA was founded in 2016, before MLR began, by the former US captain Blaine Scully and others, with an eye to growing the game and promoting player welfare. It was, by all accounts, received amicably by USA Rugby. In 2020, the USRPA asked MLR for voluntary recognition – a request said to have been met unfavorably.

The next season, Civetta and others successfully pushed the league to update head injury protocols. MLR, Civetta said, was using a dated system. He recalled seeing a player run around for 20 or 30 minutes after sustaining a clear concussion.

At the end of the 2022 season, when Gilchrist's two teams closed, players suffered. That moment, coinciding with the Eagles’ failure to qualify for the World Cup in France this year, brought home how precarious it can be to play in MLR.

Campbell said: "At that point I’m in camp trying to focus on qualifying for the World Cup, but at the same time I’m trying to figure out where my pregnant wife and I are going to live, how we’re going to stay insured, and where the next paycheck will come from."

Kyle Breytenbach, a four-year MLR veteran, was forced into retirement. Thirty years old and relatively healthy, the back-rower had no plans to hang up his boots. But after Austin folded, he wasn't able to justify another campaign.

"I have a 20-month old daughter," he said, "and I couldn't provide for her as an MLR player."

Breytenbach was also blunt about the effect playing in the MLR had on his mental health, even before the Austin fiasco.

"Every year we get to round 15 or 16 of the season, and internally my wife and I would start to bicker over where the next paycheck is coming from, how we are going to be insured."

The MLR is now partnered with Looseheadz, a group dedicated to tackling the stigma around mental health, which players say is a welcome development. But Breytenbach said: "There is a hypocrisy, where it's easy for them to give branded t-shirts to promote mental health but without the right procedures – healthcare, contract stability – in place."

Boyer asked: "What about [a player's] mental health when you have no job, housing, or healthcare?"

Players said greater contract security would allow them to establish roots in their communities; a proper healthcare plan would keep them focused on rugby; uniform working conditions would reduce injury hazards and balance the playing field.

League decisions, like the one to kick out LA and Austin, are made by owners and directors, without player representation.

Chris Mattina, once an Austin full-back, now with Chicago, sees collective bargaining as a way to give players a much-needed voice.

"Without the players, there is no league," Mattina said. "So it only makes sense that we have some input on how it develops."

Players also said a union would benefit MLR, helping establish it in world rugby and in American sports.

"Every major sports league has a union," said Sam Golla, a lock or flanker picked first, by Dallas, in the college draft last year. "This is a way for us to grow the sport, which is something we all want. We’re not asking for millions of dollars. We know it's a young league that's trying to develop. A union will [help it] do just that."

Iscaro said: "It's about setting something up that goes beyond myself. It's about building the league for the next generation, and leaving it better than we found it."

Peter Lucas is a writer covering labor and politics, based in New York

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