How Rugby Could Help to Tackle Inequalities in Sport

Prince Harry may be watching the Olympic beach volleyballers compete at Horse Guards Parade but chasing balls on sandy beaches is not unusual for AngloAmerican Sofia Luxton – who plays competitive beach rugby in Portugal – the country where she grew up. And in a few weeks she will complete a highly successful year when, as a recent graduate of the Metropolitan University of Leeds – where her boyfriend Modern Pentathlete, Aaron Cook also studied – she plays her final two matches for the England Student Rugby League team.

Born in Somerset to classical musicians – her English father, Jonathan, is the Principle French Horn with the world famous Gulbenkian Orchestra and her American mother, Denise, has just stepped down as flautist with the orchestra after thirty years – sport rather than music proved to be her passion from an early age.

Her mother Denise says – “Sofia was always competitive, highly focussed and determined. She loved athletics and preferred football to ballet. At the age of eight she even persuaded the school authorities in Portugal to change the school rules in order to allow girls to wear shorts rather than skirts so that they could play football with the boys at break time.”

Andrew Robinson, a Castleford businessman, Sofia’s sponsor through her last year at university and a shareholder in Castleford Rugby League is pleased to see wider recognition and appreciation of the sport.“For a long time, Rugby League had a stigma – a northern, working class version of a nationally respected game. But over time divisions and attitudes between the two camps have narrowed and now League is growing in popularity. To see students competing at national levels and to see the game open up to women can only be good for the sport,” he says. “We are privileged that Sofia came to study and compete here when she could have taken her talents to the US or stayed in Portugal.”

Sofia’s battles are not confined to the pitch however. She would like to see equal rewards for male and female competitors. Frustrated at seeing her male counterparts win significantly higher prize money at beach rugby while the rules and duration of play remain the same, clearly frustrates her. Her heritage has exposed her to the inequities. Since the implementation of Article 9, of the Education Amendment in 1972 which states that:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance

she can clearly see the disparity between nations. “There is still some progress to be made in the UK and other countries in Europe with regard to equal opportunities and it was a gamble for me to choose to study at an English university where it was cheaper – although there are some good examples of colleges and universities that have enabled gifted athletes.” she says. It was a gamble that paid off. Just a few months ago she competed at Twickenham and in France yet despite her achievements she still remains loyal to Portugal where she plans to continue to play Beach Rugby.

But could Beach Rugby feature alongside Beach Volleyball in the Olympics? “Well that would be amazing” Sofia says – “each year we see an increase in the participation of European teams and it’s good to see it growing in Britain too – and it definitely would help the perception of the women’s game generally. It’s a massive event which attracts many spectators from all over Europe.”

And does she intend to watch Beach Volleyball like Prince Harry? “I guess so … she says with a mild American twang, but I’d like to see him come and support women’s rugby as well – whether that’s on the sandy beaches or grassy pitches of the UK – or maybe, like Beach Volleyball, it could become an Olympic sport too.”

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