HYATTSVILLE, Md. - Rugby is the fastest growing sport in the United States and has found a new audience in the Deaf community. The modern growth of Deaf rugby began in 2009 when Mark Burke started a high school program at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C. Last year, Burke founded the All Deaf Rugby Football Club with the hope of fostering senior men's club rugby in the Deaf community. These two programs currently represent the sum total of Deaf rugby in North America. Now Burke is ready to take another pioneering step. Having completed the USA Rugby Level One Officiating training course, Burke is poised to become the first known Deaf rugby referee in the United States.
Burke initially took the class in order to gain more insight as a coach and a player. He further noted that, "With the growth of rugby in the Deaf community, I have a responsibility to promote the sport, so it was important to me that I learn everything I need to know and understand about rugby - the laws, game strategies, etc."
IRB Educators Mark Koiwai and Bob Hausler taught the course for the Potomac Society of Rugby Football Referees. To make the course accessible for Burke, the Society arranged for American Sign Language interpreters. After seeing Burke's manual scrum cadence, Hausler was confident that a Deaf referee could work matches and emphasized the use of non-verbal communication to manage the game.
After participating in the practical exercises, Burke, who has a high frequency loss, found he could not hear the whistle and had to rely solely on physical cues to manage his whistle tone and duration. Asked if he saw any challenges to reffing games, Burke answered that he did not think deafness would be an issue. He then continued with a sentiment any referee would recognize: "It's just a challenge for anyone who is now getting involved in rugby to ref. It's important to be confident first. It will take more effort on the part of the Deaf ref to be more assertive in establishing communication, but in the end confidence is key!
"I would say that we could be at an advantage, as we will not hear what others are saying," Burke continued. "We can just stay focused on the game and not let the surroundings influence the game." His sentiment is similar to those expressed by deaf Scottish referee Danny Shepherd. Other referees at the training agreed; if communication methods are established prior to the match, a Deaf referee could handle a match involving non-deaf players.
"I will ref at some point, but right now I want to fully grasp the game first," Burked answered when asked when he saw himself officiating his first match. "I think I will be reffing sooner than I think, as I am getting the push from one of the other coaches on our staff. He knows I can do it, he has confidence in me. I do know that I am comfortable asking for help, as I'm surrounded by knowledgeable people."
In the end, Burke is focused more on the similarities between himself and the other students, rather than their differences.
"To start with, I was kind of nervous to attend the class, as I don't know all the laws yet and I know I am not ready to ref just yet. I relaxed when I discovered that I am not the only one in the class who feels that way. The others in the class all have different experiences in rugby, from starting out to having been involved in rugby on a high level. I do know that all those who attend the class have a genuine interest in rugby."