Two weeks ago, while a Cleveland Browns coaching vacancy was re-igniting conversation around whether or not women can coach men, Tiffany Faaee, one of the most successful international rugby players in U.S. history, quietly signed a deal to become the first woman coach in U.S. men's professional rugby. Beginning in January, Faaee, 36, will serve as assistant coach of Rugby United New York, a Major League Rugby expansion team. "I'm just grateful when these doors open up," Faaee said, "and I'm trying to make the most of them."
Born in California, Faaee, her mother and four siblings moved to her mother's home country of Samoa when she was 7. Three years later, they moved to New Zealand, where a high school coach convinced her to give competitive rugby a go. Over the next several years, Faaee played for the Samoan and New Zealand Rugby League teams, and in 2014, she bought a one-way ticket to the U.S. and joined the New York Rugby Club, where she won a national title. Faaee also captained the USA Eagles to a fourth-place finish in the 2017 Rugby World Cup before turning to coaching. In April, she was named head coach of the Monroe College men's and women's teams, a role she will continue to hold while also coaching in MLR, which enters its sophomore season in 2019.
"There are a lot of struggles with women's rugby around the world," Faaee said. "In Tonga, women were banned from playing in schools this year." She also pointed to a Nov. 20 report out of the United Arab Emirates that during a recent debate at parliament, a Federal National Council member said rugby was too rough for girls and it's preventing them from taking cooking classes and becoming the perfect housewife. "Imagine a girl graduates from school playing rugby but doesn't know how to cook," Salem Al Shehhi said during the debate. "This sport is one of the most dangerous sports and girls are playing it in high school, whereas one of the most important skills to be taught in school has disappeared: cooking classes."
Reading reports like these reminds Faaee that her new job provides her with the opportunity to be a visible example of what women are capable of achieving in her sport. "There is a responsibility in being a female player and coach in America, where we can speak more freely," she said. "Seeing a woman coach in the pro men's ranks will inspire others to keep going."
espnW caught up with Faaee between practice sessions at her home in Brooklyn.
espnW: What about coaching appeals to you?
Tiffany Faaee: I was the oldest of five children, so I learned to put myself last. After moving back to America (in 2014), I turned up to my first training day with New York and saw these girls who worked so hard and loved rugby, but were so new to the game. I felt a responsibility.
As a player, I've always wanted everyone around me to be better, so I put my teammates before myself and I think that's why I was captain for the World Cup. As captain, I saw a lot of holes that I knew I could fill behind the scenes to give young players the support they need. I pinch myself every day that I get to do this for a living. There is something about helping other people reach their goals that I am driven by. When people are passionate and know where they want to go, I want to help them get there.
espnW: In the NFL, there is a popular argument that because no woman has played in the league, she can't coach in the NFL. Have you experienced that same mentality in rugby?
TF: The fact I played for the Eagles, the players know I scrum the same, tackle the same, what I've been through as a rugby athlete is what they've been through. The game is exactly the same. We use the same ball, the same field, the rules are the same. Only in my case, there aren't many players in Major League Rugby who have reached the international level. For most of them, MLR is the highest level they've played, so there is already that respect that I've played a higher level of rugby.
espnW: How much does your playing experience help you gain the respect of your players?
TF: My playing career gets my foot in the door, but I go in with the mentality that I still have to prove myself. Not all retired players can coach, and some of the best coaches have never played at the elite level, but they understand the art of articulating the sport. You have to be able to stand in front of a group of athletes and get them to compete at their highest level and produce the outcome you envisioned. I want to show my depth and knowledge of the sport, but also always be learning. I want my players to be better than I was. I want to push them and help them reach their full potential.
espnW: Why do you think there aren't more women coaching rugby in the U.S.?
TF: Rugby is so behind every other sport in the U.S., and it's still an old boys' club. It's only recently that women have started to be heard. For a while, rugby was treated as exclusively a male sport, so where we are today is huge compared to where we were even five years ago.
Also, women are very thorough. We want to understand the task completely and perform it efficiently, and I think sometimes men are intimidated by the way we operate. When men apply for work, they might look at the qualifications and if they meet half of them, they'll just wing the other half and apply for the job. If a woman can't do one of the qualifications, she won't go out for the job. I think it's an old-school mentality that we as women have to overcome. We can't sit back and let it be this way because it's the way it always has been.
espnW: You recently completed your first season as head coach at Monroe. What did you learn from that experience that you will bring to MLR?
TF: We finished fourth in the region, the best the program has ever done. After the season, the players said they liked how genuine I am, that I am not afraid to make mistakes and admit when I do and then apologize. I'm honest. I am asking them to be vulnerable, so it's important I display that first. They like that I set the tone, am consistent, that they know what to expect and that I'm fair. This is a game where you can't let everyone play in every game. For every selection, I told each player I sat, "This is why you aren't playing or this is why this guy is playing over you." As long as you're transparent, they appreciate it. A lot of coaches struggle with avoiding confrontation. I'm not afraid of that stuff.
espnW: What does it mean to you to be the first woman coaching in the pro rugby ranks?
TF: It's a real privilege and huge honor, not because I'm coaching a pro men's rugby team, but because I am one of the first women coaching in pro men's sports. To know you are looked at as someone who can come in and break those barriers, that's huge. I want other women to be proud there is someone who can represent them well out there. There isn't always that support. Sometimes it's a struggle for women to support other women.
espnW: How will you support other women from your position?
TF: I was involved in the selection of the current Eagles women's coach, Rob Cain, and there were female applicants and lots of talk that, "You need to hire her because she's female." No, we need to hire the best coach. If they're female, great; if they're male, great. I'm looking at who can offer the best environment. There was a bit of pressure from the female rugby community to go with a female candidate because it would look great perception-wise. But I don't want to be hired because I'm female. I want to be hired because I'm a good coach, and I think that's true for all women. That's why I voted for Rob. He was the best person for the job. In the future, we would love to hire a female coach, but not because it looks good for the program.
espnW: What about your new job most excites you?
TF: In America, when women speak up, we represent women around the world. The sport is so new here, but we're making progress. In some countries that have been playing rugby for a long time, that's not the case. South Africa stopped their women from playing rugby. In Tonga, women were banned from playing in schools this year. There is a responsibility in being a female player and coach in America. We have an environment where we can speak more freely in comparison to the rest of the world. Off the pitch, we are ahead of the rest of the world. On the pitch, it's coming. I'm excited to be a part of that change.