Chicago Dragons Rugby Club hosts champion Ben Cohen at practice

By Lindsey Woods

The Chicago Dragons rugby practice on Aug. 30 looked normal enough. The men lined up on the side of the pitch, stretched their muscles and prepared for the scrums and drills awaiting them. The sound was what gave away the distinctiveness of the occasion—a strong British accent mixed with the typical grunting and yelling that come with practice.

That accent belonged to special guest Ben Cohen, England Rugby World Cup winner  and founder of The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation. StandUp was created to speak out against bullying, specifically “removing homophobia from sports,” according to a press release.

The Dragons, who are the only Midwest rugby club that actively recruits both gay and straight men, have partnered with the North America Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance and the 2011 Gay Softball World Series to bring Cohen to Chicago.

“I think, traditionally, sports are somewhere the gay community is greatly underrepresented,” said Craig Sklenar, Dragons president. “There’s a lot more of a chance for bullying there.”

Cohen decided to become a straight ally to the gay community when he connected with his fans through Facebook. He noticed a large number of them were gay.

“In 2006, I realized I had a big gay following, and the stories that came with that were very sad and tragic,” Cohen said.

“And I thought I was actually in a pretty good position to do something about it.”

The two hours that Cohen spent with the team were all about rugby. He participated with them in drills, took individual players aside and posed for pictures with the team. His expertise was carefully and excitedly heeded by players.

“Even with subtle things like going down into a ruck and positioning your body to place the ball, you can tell [Cohen] knows exactly what he’s talking about,” said Ryan Ackers, a tight head.

Although individual players admitted to dealing with instances of bullying and athletic exclusion from sports during their lives, most agreed that within their league, the Chicago Area Football Union, members are respectful

and tolerant.

“I was in one game, one time, where someone called us f-gs,” said Bob Schumacher, team captain. “His own team got on him faster than we could. Most people don’t even think about it. Straight players say ‘ow’ when you tackle them, just like gay players do.”

The special practice comes right in time to help the Dragons gear up for their first game of the fall season on Sept. 10 against the Woodsmen rugby club.  The club plays fall and spring seasons.  Akers said the fall season is the more competitive of the two.

To counterbalance the competitiveness of the sport, the club also has a social aspect. Members can be administrators, players or social members, meaning they pay dues that grant them access to after-game parties and special events such

as fundraisers.

The Dragons are sponsored by several local bars, so a lot of the home games are followed by social outings. Sometimes the opponents are invited.

“There are not many sports where you will go and beat the crap out of each other for two hours and then go out and share a pint afterwards,” Schumacher said