Feature Image: Memphis Inner-City Rugby alumni coaches and staff distributed food, basic supplies, and rugby equipment at Believe Memphis in the Klondike neighborhood. They also passed out over 650 supply bags to other North Memphis residents. (Submitted)
By Ashley Davis, for High Ground News
The Memphis Inner-City Rugby team can’t play ball in the COVID-19 pandemic so players and alumni coaches are lending a hand to families in need off the field.
Coaches assembled and delivered close to 100 nutrition and support bags with basic household supplies to players and their families, as well as rugby equipment to keep skills sharp from home. They also passed out over 650 supply bags to other North Memphis residents.
Most of MICR’s players live in North and South Memphis, Westwood, Frayser, Hickory Hill, and Orange Mound.
“We can’t do any rugby. We’re not in schools right now,” said Shane Young, MICR’s executive director. “So we asked, ‘What can we do with our resources and our people? We figured the best thing we could do was deliver supplies [and food].”
MICR received two $2,500 grants through the Mid-South COVID-19 Regional Response Fund towards their relief work and keeping their coaches employed.
MICR partners with schools in low-income Memphis neighborhoods to bring rugby to students who might not have any other opportunities for team sports.
“Rugby kept me motivated. There are a lot of opportunities for young people playing rugby,” said Jalen Jones. “I was looking at rugby as a way out and to keep me out of trouble.”
Jones is a former MICR player and current coach. He graduated from Freedom Preparatory High School in Westwood in 2019.
Jones and MICR’s other 20 coaches lost their jobs when the pandemic shut down schools, practices, and games. The coaches are all MICR alumni who played for MICR in high school and have returned to give back. Many are first-generation college students.
MICR was able to put $15,700 towards their collective pay while the coaches focused their work on packing and distributing relief packages.
Jones is grateful for the continued paycheck that’s helping him support his Mom and save up for classes at Southwest Community College, but it’s not all about his own stability. He genuinely wants to lend a hand and rally around his rugby family.
“It was exciting to me that we got to help other families in need,” Jones said.
LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
Young and Devin O’Brien started Memphis Inner City Rugby in 2012. For almost 10 years now, the nonprofit has helped introduce the non-traditional sport to hundreds of kids in Memphis.
Team sports are undeniably beneficial to kids’ healthy and education. But ongoing budget cuts are preventing many low-income schools from offering any sports at all. The rising costs of fees, uniforms, and equipment can prevent low-income students and families from participating.
“The general trend across schools in America is that youth sports is an endangered species, especially in urban communities,” Young said. “We want to be that opposite of that trend.”
Usually rugby is played at elite private schools. Research shows children from wealthier families are twice as likely to participate in sports like rugby, lacrosse, or swimming. They are more likely to participate in local and national championships and receive lucrative college scholarships.
Children from economically disadvantaged communities don’t have the same access and can’t reap the same health and economic benefits.
Basketball and football dominate fields and courts at public schools and community centers for are expensive programs to maintain. Young says rugby doesn’t require a lot of pads and equipment so it’s cheaper for everyone.
MICR funds all of its rugby programs so the schools incur no costs.
OFF-FIELD AND OFFLINE: DIGITAL DIVIDES
MICR expanded to Raleigh and North Memphis in the last two years. They rolled out their first elementary cohort at Believe Memphis and Memphis Scholars Caldwell-Guthrie in Klondike and Smokey City and Journey Community Schools’ Coleman K-8 School in Raleigh.
Young said the summer and upcoming school year are still uncertain so he is trying to engage players virtually. The digital divide has made that a challenge.
In response, MICR board members and local businesses donated over a dozen computers and laptops for their alums and seniors. They also connected 60 of their students with rugby balls and fitness equipment so they can continue to practice at home.
Young hopes to utilize his alumni coaches as one-on-one mentors this summer.
He said he doesn’t want the pandemic to prevent his students from having access to opportunity.
“We want kids to be able to thrive in this sport, feel supported by the alumni community and continue to build on this tradition,” Young said.
This story was originally published June 8, 2020 by High Ground News.