Don’t Complain About American Players Going Abroad

Complaining about the state of your country’s rugby union is a unifying theme around the globe. One American complaint needs to stop.

A prominent rugby pundit in the States took to Twitter last week to rant about players going abroad instead of staying in the MLR. Since I don’t personally know him, I’ll leave him out of this, but his points were the same as those from similarly minded people. In general, they believe that players should stay to develop the league as a means of growing the Eagles in the long term instead of moving abroad to play in larger leagues.

It sounds great if your only concern is growing rugby in the USA. If you value the player, its moronic.

There’s several reasons why we need to stop chastising Americans abroad. Let’s look at each point.

Players move abroad for a variety of reasons. Some want to play and develop at a higher level. Critics argue that the gap between the world’s top club competitions and the MLR is smaller than advertised. That point is a bit misleading. Is the gap shrinking? Yes, and more quickly than expected. That doesn’t mean the gap is gone. If a player wants to go and develop in a way they don’t feel they can in the MLR, what good is it to stop them? Now, there is a reasonable discussion to be had about the value of playing regularly at a lower level versus limited appearences at a higher level. That will be saved for another day, but that’s a decision for the player to make in conjunction with advisers.

Its also important to remember who plays in the MLR. These are young men that might go abroad for more reasons than the quality of competition. Psalm Wooching moved to France because his wife’s family is French. Others may simply want to experience another culture. If a 21 year old studies abroad, does their university say they’re betraying the American education system? Then why complain about a 23 year old working abroad.

Critics would point to the impact of better players staying in the States. They are the same people that complain about high profile foreign players in the MLR. In many ways, these critics believe that Major League Rugby should play the same role for American rugby that Super Rugby does in the Pacific: develop their players, keep them at home, and largely push out foreign talent. That deserves its own post, but don’t complain that the league lacks talent then get upset by the nationality of available talent.

Perhaps the dumbest complaint is around salary. Rugby players, like all professional athletes, have short careers relative to the broader population. Each and every player should be encouraged to get whatever paycheck they can. While the MLR cap is impressive given its age and the whole global pandemic situation, its still a little over a half million dollars. The French cap is almost eleven million. Keeping those players would help the league, and (indirectly) the salary cap, but its far too much to put that burden on the individual player.

Frankly, its pretty bold to tell a young man to turn down a healthy wage and chance to see the world because you want them playing in front of a 3,000 seat stadium within your borders. (A cynic would suggest that such people also want their fast food employees to work for bread and bow when they give them their $1 burger. Thank goodness I would never do that.)

Then there’s the comments about the legitimacy of the cap. Salary infringement has a long history in rugby. Let’s put that to bed right now; no team should circumvent the cap to keep talent. Its deceitful, and suggesting it should be embarrassing.

Here’s the main takeaway. Americans will occasionally go abroad to ply their trade. If you want them to stay, commit to growing the league and feeder systems. As revenue grows, so should the cap. Rugby salaries around the globe are hardly massive. This is nothing compared to the issues faced by Major League Soccer. There’s a real chance that the league is holding strong talents for the entirety of their career within a decade, but its not an individual player’s job to subsidize the system in the meantime.

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