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Coercion, contracts and the at times murky world of semi-pro women's rugby

By Stella Mills

Trending on RugbyPass

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With the salary cap increasing and contracts being introduced at semi-professional clubs, it’s easy to assume that elite women’s rugby in England is progressing.

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But after speaking exclusively with an England international and two Premier 15s players, who have all understandably requested anonymity, a very different behind-the-scenes picture of elite-level women’s club rugby emerges.

The current England international began by describing the semi-professional landscape as the “Wild West” and after finishing the call it was impossible to disagree.

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She told me that younger players within clubs are taken advantage of and often pressured into signing lengthy contracts with no support or explanation offered to them.

The Red Rose went onto say: “One player sustained an injury during a game and was told the club wouldn’t cover the cost of surgery unless she signed a long-term contract with them. Out of necessity she signed it that night and was rushed into surgery the next day. She was basically blackmailed into it.”

The international spoke of older, more experienced players in clubs now taking on the responsibility of educating younger players. They believe that their knowledge and understanding of how contract processes work can protect others from being manipulated.

She points to the lack of guidance and advice being provided for female players before calling on Premier 15s clubs to level the contract negotiations playing field by ensuring women have access to the same support as their male counterparts. After all, in most cases they are representing the same club, so logically, they should be afforded the same professional opportunities.

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Many players are currently left with no opportunity to negotiate contracts because they don’t know how to and also because they have no clear process to follow as this is all new ground. Therefore, players are regularly forced into approaching high-level members of the club to have some very uncomfortable conversations –  often with disappointing results.

The second player advised that upon signing with her club she was told she didn’t qualify for one of the ten ‘professional’ contracts on offer but would be paid expenses. Therefore, at the end of the season she submitted her expenditure breakdown, which totaled over £3,000.

What she was given, however, was nowhere close to that: “They gave me £150 and told me the player fund was for people who really need it,” she said.

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Being a Premier 15s player comes with high expectations. Women are expected to invest time, health and now apparently finances for the love of the game. Those who argue that players should be proud to represent their clubs should consider that pride doesn’t put dinner on the table. There’s a big difference between playing for free and playing for debt.

It seems rugby union’s unfair treatment of women isn’t limited to club level. The international went on to say: “I know an international player who did an appearance for a well-known clothing brand and got nothing in return, whereas the men involved in the campaign received £1,000 each and a kit drop.

When she questioned it, she learned it was part of her contract. She had an agent and even she didn’t know about that.”

“We are doing exactly the same job the male players do, but because we have little knowledge of the workings, we are being taken advantage of.”

The third player was told she wasn’t going to be considered for contract negotiations because the club expected her to be pregnant as she was of childbearing age. In any other field of work, this statement practically writes the employment tribunal case itself.

Players on her team were told not to discuss the finer details of their contracts with each other because “the men are really good at not doing that.”

This statement alone rings alarm bells since while it is common practice not to discuss salaries with others in the workplace, being compared to the men’s team as a way of ensuring you don’t talk is strange.

So where do we go from here? How do we move forwards?

One thing is clear; there needs to be more support available to the players themselves. The players deserve to have access to professionals who will guide them through the contract process, to ensure they aren’t underselling themselves and being taken advantage of.

In reality, this isn’t widely available to women’s teams. The big-name players will often have agents, which is great – but what about those players who are only just starting out? How are they expected to understand the legal jargon behind a contract? It’s no wonder most just sign on the dotted line.

Emmerson Wood founded Hunter Sports Management specifically to help female athletes. He works closely with a variety of players to ensure they get the best possible contracts and deals – and he believes things need to change.

“I have been shocked at the way some players have been treated,” he said. “It seems there is a lot of scaremongering happening, in order to secure the skills and abilities of players, often for next to nothing.

“In my view, female rugby players are currently paying their way to play, and the clubs are reaping the benefit, and that is unacceptable.

“Some of the contracts are a ‘copy and paste’ job from a male contract. It’s unacceptable that athletes paid £1,000 per year are expected to ask their club to find them more work, or for sponsorship deals. That isn’t even taking into consideration travelling to training three times a week with no expenses paid.”

Hunter Sports Management hopes to provide a platform to help female athletes gain the most out of their contracts without jeopardising their positions with clubs, and is providing this help free of charge.

The sad thing is that up until now, players thought their individual experiences were exactly that, individual. But, as more players come forward, we are beginning to learn that this isn’t specific to just one club, it’s a widespread issue within the women’s game.

The sport still has a long road ahead. These athletes are professional, training and playing at an elite level, so why aren’t they being treated like it?

When contacted, the Rugby Football Union (RFU), who oversees the Premier 15s,  told RugbyPass that: “The RFU is committed to ensuring that all players have fair and equal treatment in their contract dealings. All 40 players in a club’s registered player base should have a club playing contract in place. Any contract between a club and the player must be approved by the RFU in advance.”

The RFU encouraged any players with complaints to contact them through speakup@rfu.com. 

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Coercion, contracts and the at times murky world of semi-pro women's rugby

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