For three decades the Lincoln Park Rugby Club has toured the world, spreading the city’s name in a positive way to people in Europe, Asia, South America, Australia, and the West Indies. But one evening last week a city cop, apparently acting on Park District orders, barred the team from the lighted section of the park where they’ve been practicing for years, on the grounds that they were a danger to the grass. He told them to stop practicing or even jogging, directed them to an unlighted portion of the park, where they couldn’t see to play, and warned them they could be ticketed and arrested for disobeying his commands.
“We’ve played in Lincoln Park for 26 years, and now we’re suddenly a danger to the grass?” says Phil Williams, captain of the club. “That’s absurd. A crack addict has a better chance of getting into Lincoln Park than we do.”
The team has its origins in the counterculture of the late 1960s, when hippies and jocks gathered in the park to play a game that was a little different. “We played in Lincoln Park because that’s where we lived, and we were part of that scene,” says Jerry Fohrman, one of the team’s founders. “I remember we were practicing when Country Joe was playing down the way, singing against the Vietnam war. We were even there at the time of the Democratic convention protests.”
In those days the Park District was run by a crude bunch of Democratic loyalists who made no pretense of being anything other than what they were–party hacks. They usually operated out of the dusty back rooms of old field houses, where they spent their days playing cards and smoking cigars. This was an era of clout, yet they let just about anyone, even hippies, play in the parks for free. “As I recall, we were getting permits for a while, and then they stopped requiring them,” says Fohrman. “It was all very informal. We just played.”
Generally the team practiced at the south end of the park, near North Avenue on a field it shared with softball and soccer teams, Frisbee throwers, kite fliers, dog walkers, artists, lovers, and pot smokers. They competed in national and international tournaments, and frequently hosted players who dropped in from all over the world, knowing only that somewhere in Chicago was a park named for Lincoln where rugby was played.
The team adopted rugby’s strange and intoxicating ethos of violence and fellowship, knocking heads for 80 minutes before retreating to a tavern to drink beer and howl bawdy limericks. “There’s a camaraderie with rugby that’s unlike anything I’ve seen–it truly is a universal club that crosses all barriers,” says Michael Geske, who plays for Lincoln Park. “Once I was on a business trip in Tennessee and I saw some guys playing, so I got out of my car and mentioned that I played. And the next thing you know they lent me a shirt and shoes and shorts and I was playing with them. After that we celebrated.”
One day last month as the team prepared to practice, they were approached by a Park District official named Gail Lock, who told them they were violating district rules. Unbeknownst to the rugby players, the district had adopted a new policy under which each diamond and playing field in Lincoln Park could be used only with a $10 permit.
Williams assured Lock that his team was good for the money. That even though their practices often left them sweaty and caked with mud, most of them held decent-paying jobs in such respectable fields as finance, medicine, and law.
It’s too late for that, Lock explained; all the permits for the lighted playing fields were gobbled up long ago by the Chicago Social Club. The club is an enormous collection of cheery youngsters in or just out of college. For a fee of several hundred dollars per sport, the club allows them to arrange themselves into coed softball, volleyball, or touch football teams that play almost year-round.
“We see the Social Club all the time–their games are going on all around us,” says Williams. “We always stay out of their way. If one of their balls rolled into where we were playing, we’d scatter and let the outfielder track it down. It’s not my kind of thing–it’s mainly a pick-up scene–but I’ve got nothing against them. Still, it bothers me that they get all the permits for this part of the park. It’s not fair that they can muscle us out.” (Social Club officials would not comment.)
“Gail said we could play at Montrose or Wilson,” Williams went on. “I said, ‘But there are no lights there.’ She said, ‘Practice earlier.’ I said, ‘But most of our guys work and can’t make it until seven.’ I explained we’ve been here for a lot longer than the Social Club, which has only been around for the last few years. But that didn’t seem to impress her.”
Williams pointed out that his team practices outside the area where the Social Club plays its softball games. But that area, he was told, was reserved as open space–no games were permitted there.
Williams called the Park District and was bounced from one bureaucrat to the next. He wound up talking to Allen Ackermann, manager of lakefront parks. “Ackermann said he could assure me that we couldn’t play rugby in the park. I said, ‘But we’re the Lincoln Park rugby team. We’ve been playing there for 26 years.'”
On September 6 when the rugby team gathered for practice on their regular field they found a policeman waiting for them. “The cop took me to his squad car and said, ‘You can’t play rugby here,'” says Williams. “I said, ‘Do you know what ordinance we’re violating?’ And he pulled out a clipboard with an ordinance attached that says we’re not supposed to play ball where you would destroy shrubbery or kill grass. It was very open-ended. It didn’t mention rugby at all. He said, ‘You can go to Montrose.’ I said, ‘Can I talk to a Park District official?’ He said, ‘They’ve all gone home.’ Then he said, ‘If you stay here you will be subject to ticketing and arrest.’ This was getting to be too much. I looked around and I saw some football players, just an informal group throwing around a ball. I said, ‘What about them?’ He said, ‘You can play football here. You just can’t play rugby.’ I said, ‘All right. What if we put our ball away and just run around?’ He said, ‘No, you have to leave.’ I said, ‘OK, how about this? How about if one or two guys stay behind to direct the stragglers over to Montrose?’ He said, ‘No, leave the park. I’ll stay and direct them.'”
Williams and his teammates were outraged. Booting them from the park seemed unfair and arbitrary, particularly when they saw the Social Club playing football on the very field supposedly reserved as open space. Williams wrote Mayor Daley. When that failed to ease his frustration, he wrote park superintendent Forrest Claypool. “That the Park District allows soccer, from which rugby was derived, and football, a sport derived from rugby, while [prohibiting] rugby is illogical,” he wrote Claypool.
Neither Daley nor Claypool responded, as anyone familiar with City Hall would predict. The matter might have died there, except Geske called Mike Royko. The Tribune columnist was on vacation, but an assistant called the Park District for comment. Within minutes Ackermann called Geske, asking to meet with the rugby players and assuring them that he’d had nothing to do with the police being called.
“I did get a call from Royko’s assistant, but that has nothing to do with anything,” says Ackermann. “I try to return every phone call I get, and in the last week they’ve been substantial from the rugby players. The problem here is that the rugby players were playing without permit. But they’ve been permitted to play in Clarendon Park, so the whole thing has been settled.”
As Ackermann explains it, the district has nothing against rugby. And he understands why the team members don’t understand the district’s policy. The line between activities that do and don’t require permits, like that between art and pornography, is a fine one. “Any use of the park that prevents other people from using it has to have a permit,” says Ackermann. “A bunch of guys just informally tossing around a football wouldn’t need a permit.”
And a bunch of guys practicing rugby?
“They do, because they’re a team that wants that park space at the same time every week.”
What about the Social Club, which the rugby players say is playing in an area that’s reserved as open space?
“Well, they’re not supposed to.”
Is it fair to give the Social Club a monopoly on permits?
“I wouldn’t call it a monopoly. They have a large following, and they got to the place first. When the rugby players first started playing, not as many people were using Lincoln Park. That was a time when people were a little more sedentary. Now everybody wants to play, and that taxes a park.”
The rugby players remain dissatisfied with Ackermann’s explanation and solution. “We want our old field back–it’s much better lighted than Clarendon Park,” says Williams. “Let the Social Club play in Clarendon Park. We were in Lincoln Park first. It comes down to this: they have clout and we don’t.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.