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Utah Utes men's rugby not officially expelled, decision from school to come next week

Published: Friday, April 5 2013 1:05 p.m. MDT

Utah's Winston Harris catches the ball during the Wasatch Cup rugby match at BYU in Provo on Saturday, April 24, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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After it was announced that the University of Utah would not compete in the Wasatch Cup and Varsity Cup National Collegiate Rugby Championship due to university-imposed suspension, the Utes club team responded with a vehement statement of protest.

The statement, published Thursday on RUGBYMag.com, said that the team was notified of "being expelled from the University of Utah's Sport Club Program" on April 1. It went on to say that the punishment "effectively spann[ed] four years" and was "deemed to be excessively harsh and unfair."

The club's fate, however, apparently isn't as final as the team's own statement made it appear. Keith Sterling, the communications director at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News on Friday that no final decision has been made regarding the long-term status of the team.

"There has been talk about a three-year suspension, five-year suspension, but that is not final yet," Sterling said. "They're having a meeting next week of administration officials...our plan is to, next week, put out some type of statement."

Sterling could not, under university codes of ethics and family educational rights, confirm the specific cause for the pending punishment.

The rugby team's published statement, however, voluntarily disclosed at least one reason for the team's possible expulsion.

"...Utah Rugby does not deny an incident involving alcohol which occurred in May 2012..."

The statement also suggested the involvement of just one individual in the infraction, concluding, "... We feel that punishing an entire team or organization for the actions of one of its members creates an atmosphere of injustice and bias to the rest of the committed student-athletes, which we feel is contrary to the mission of the University."

The University of Utah sport club manual lists "use of alcoholic beverages or any illegal drugs during club activities or sanctioned travel" as one of six infractions that result in expulsion. Another is "contracting in the name of the University," a violation Sterling admitted the team committed during the period of its 2012 suspension.

"One of the things that was out there publicly, they were identifying themselves in some instances as affiliated with the University of Utah," Sterling said. "They were prohibited from being affiliated with the school. That’s part of the suspension."

While the team's statement referenced a violation in 2012, Sterling said the team's compliance issues actually began in 2011, one year after Utah men's rugby won the USA 7's Rugby Collegiate Championship.

The 2011 infraction, Sterling said, incurred probation. The team then violated the terms of its probation in 2012 by "engaging in additional misconduct", prompting suspension.

Sterling said the team then compounded matters with further misconduct.

"During the term of that suspension, we learned that they violated the terms of that suspension during those 12 months," Sterling said. "So now, we are evaluating the university's future relationship with the team and the disciplinary action."

The Varsity Cup, a postseason rugby league with eight permanent university members including UCLA, Notre Dame, California and defending national champion BYU, announced Friday morning that Central Washington had accepted an invitation to participate in the 2013 Varsity Cup Championship.

"CWU comes into the Varsity Cup after the forced departure of the University of Utah following a recent administrative suspension of the Utah rugby program."

BYU's official rugby site reported on Tuesday that the Wasatch Cup, an annual BYU-Utah match dubbed as "college rugby's rivalry," was cancelled due to "university violations by the University of Utah rugby team. The Wasatch Cup was scheduled to take place April 5 at BYU's South Field.

“The timing of the news is obviously not good,” BYU head coach David Smyth said in the report. “Our boys are definitely disappointed at not being able to play against our rivals, the University of Utah. The Wasatch Cup is a big deal here in our state and it not only hurts both of our programs to not play this game, but it hurts rugby in general here in Utah. It’s a sore and sad day for both programs.”

Utah men's rugby head coach Blake Burdette could not be reached for comment.

Matt Petersen is the Sports Web Editor for DeseretNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheMattPetersen.

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