Forced to choose, eight Stags pick rugby over shot at second SCIAC football title

Six CMS football players, in red uniforms, walk off a field during a game against Chapman in 2018.
Members of the CMS football team walk off the field during a game against Chapman on Senior Day in 2018. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

On the heels of its first conference title in more than 30 years, and first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps football team lost eight players — all due to a new safety policy that effectively bars football players from also competing on the 5C men’s rugby team.

Eight CMS players — including some of the Stags’ top athletes — ultimately decided to quit CMS football to play rugby for the 5C team, according to rugby captain Conner Pederson CM ’20. Pederson said no rugby players quit to stay with the football team.

The biggest loss was to the Stags’ receiving corps. Receivers Matthew Sill CM ’21 and Ethan Takeyama CM ’21, along with tight end Zach Heffernan CM ’21, all decided to quit for rugby. The trio of sophomores led the Stags in receiving yards and receptions in 2018, and Heffernan had the team’s most receiving TDs with three.

Other players included linebacker Connor Lehner CM ’20 and defensive back Michael Porter CM ’21, who were fifth and 21st in tackling in 2018, respectively.

Three of the eight players — Sill, Heffernan and Lehner — played both rugby and football in 2017-18. The other five quit football so they could play rugby for the first time this spring, Sill said.

The new policy came from CMS head football coach Kyle Sweeney, who summarized the rule: “A student-athlete who plays what the NCAA deems a ‘contact and collision’ sport in the spring may not play football — another ‘contact and collision sport’ — the following fall.”

Sweeney said via email that he created the rule for “safety and recovery reasons,” and believes it will “better protect [his] student-athletes from exposure to injury.”

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Although the rule does not specifically prohibit playing rugby, it is the only additional “contact and collision” sport that current Stag football players play, Sill said. If one of Sweeney’s players wanted to join a non-contact sport in the winter or spring, it would not violate the policy.

Sill said he was upset that he had to choose between his two team allegiances. He said he “love[s] the sport of football and love[s] the guys on the CMS team to death,” but thought the best choice was to continue with rugby, forfeiting his ability to play for the Stags.

“I came into the football program understanding that players were allowed to play rugby and other sports in the spring,” Sill said. “So when that opportunity ended this year, I decided to play for the team that still allowed me to get what I believe to be the most out of Division III sports.”

Sweeney, who led the CMS football program to its first NCAA DIII tournament bid and first SCIAC title in 31 years last fall, said he created the policy after extensive research; this was “not a decision that was taken lightly.”

The new rule is in line with Division I and Division II football guidelines regarding spring practice regulations and live contact restrictions, he said. Sweeney also said a DIII rule that prohibits teams from conducting live contact practices in the offseason informed his decision.

“I have spent hundreds of hours over the past two and half years contacting every institution [that] has DIII football and club rugby, consulting with administrators and medical personnel, researching the NCAA stance on spring physical contact for DIII football players and the associated risks to our student-athletes,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney said he believes the policy will help prevent injury and align CMS football with the rest of the country in terms of protecting student-athletes.

The new policy surprised and dismayed some CMS football players when Sweeney broke the news during the team’s three-week summer training camp, Sill said. He said he understands his former coach’s thought process, but doesn’t agree that the decision was necessary.

“I came into the football program understanding that players were allowed to play rugby and other sports in the spring. So when that opportunity ended this year, I decided to play for the team that still allowed me to get what I believe to be the most out of Division III sports.” – Matthew Sill CM ’21

“[Sweeney] made it clear that it was not something he wanted to do,” he said. “He has always wanted his players to get the most out of their college experience. However, it was something he felt he had to do for the benefit of the program’s future in terms of player safety and team success.”

The eight players’ departure came as a disappointment to the rest of the Stags, Sill said, due to the loss of talent on the football team. Sweeney declined to comment on how the team’s losses might affect its success in the 2019 fall season.

“Some players were understanding of the new rule and the coaches’ perspective and some were upset at its enforcement,” Sill said. “However, no one took sides or anything like that; we were all disappointed overall for what it meant for the following season.”

He said the rule ultimately won’t affect the team’s brotherhood.

“The CMS football team has always had a strong bond as players,” Sill said. “I don’t think that any disappointment from players would affect their dynamic as a team because of the culture that is in place with current player relations.”

Uma Nagarajan-Swenson contributed to this report.

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