Pam Kosanke affectionately calls rugby the “Land of Misfit Toys” for its accepting and inclusive nature. The chief marketing officer for USA Rugby fits in perfectly since she has always marched to her own beat.
Kosanke has led a full life, though she is only 35. She is openly lesbian, yet dated men for years, and is now engaged to a woman who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympics bobsled team. Kosanke earned a Fulbright Scholarship and played in two College Softball World Series at the University of Michigan and was a two-time 1st team Academic All-American. After graduation, she found herself in Sydney for the 2000 Summer Olympics and did her part for the Games by washing dishes in the media village.
The St. Louis native then took a job with the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago, where she counted McDonald's among her clients. It was during this time that she discovered rugby, a sport that hooked her from the start. She paid a stiff physical price, with two hip surgeries, torn ligaments and a major concussion; “I ruined my body,” she said.
In her role with USA Rugby, which she started late last year, she will try and help grow a sport that is achieving wider acceptance on the American sporting scene and will have a place as an official Olympic sport at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
It is rugby's unique live-and-let-live culture that appeals to Kosanke and has her believing the sport will continue to grow in the U.S.
“I call it the Land of Misfit Toys,” she said. “It's very accepting. There's all different types of players, there's all different sizes and shapes. Even the positions themselves lend themselves to people with all different backgrounds and types. Anybody can be a rugby player. And the game embraces it. In fact, it's almost like they say, 'You've never picked up a rugby ball before? Well, jump in at wing and see what happens,' without any direction or sense the person will get clobbered.
“But people fall in love with it because it's like a family. The women and men take care of each other extremely well, they have great relationships, there's brother and sister bars. When I first joined, there was probably less acceptance among the men of the lesbian crowd, but now it's not even an issue."
Kosanke contrasts her new sport with softball, where a batter can do everything right and still have a perfectly hit ball go for an out. "You can't control everything and I always look back and think I learned a lot in softball,” she said. “It was one of the most intense and amazing sports I ever played, though in the end I just want to hit something. Thank God rugby came along."
It was through rugby that Kosanke met her partner, Tracy Call, herself a tremendous athlete, good enough to make the U.S. Olympic bobsled team in 2010. Call, who owns an ad agency, is also an LGBT activist, spearheading the successful campaign in Minnesota last November that defeated a proposed amendment to the state's constitution that would have made same-sex marriage illegal. (We can thank Call for getting Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe on board as a spokesman.)
While the two live apart – Kosanke in Boulder, Colo., and Call in Minneapolis – they see each other three times a month and are now engaged. Kosanke jokes that Call is making her more and more a lesbian as time goes by.
"Tracy laughs and says she's a 10 on a 10 lesbian scale and will try and make me a 6 or a 7. … The more I'm with Tracy, I'm becoming a 7 or 8,” Kosanke said.
Kosanke is not comfortable with labels and said that in dating she found the physical part easier with men and the emotional part easier with women. It led her to feel confused until she just accepted things and went with the flow.
"I'm actually jealous of the people who say they knew they were gay since they were 5. I wish I knew when I was 5,” Kosanke said. “I just knew I liked to play sports and I didn't know what I was feeling. There was never a sexual sense until I went to college."
Rugby is perfectly positioned, she believes, to be a sport more popular with gays and lesbians. "It's the culture of rugby to be embracing and open and absorb anybody who wants to play. When I played softball at Michigan, I found the first couple years to be a gay person's nightmare. People were closeted and they were discriminated against."
While USA Rugby does not have a specific LGBT initiative, the sport is working with the U.S. Olympic Committee as part of its diversity program, and is also working with Ben Cohen's anti-bullying project and Break the Silence. In February, Kosanke actively promoted the Women's Rugby 7's World Series in Houston. She partnered with My Gay Houston to spread word and is working with Austin gay rights groups. "If I could make it a pre-Dinah Shore event, I would,” she said.
USA Rugby is rolling out a new marketing initiative this month with the goal of raising the sport's visibility in the country. “Overall, my job follows the big 'Ms': Marketing, Media, Money and Merchandising,” Kosanke said, “all with the final goal of monetizing the USA Rugby product over time, and especially leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games.”
“Her goal is to take USA Rugby to another level, give it the national respect and recognition it deserves and support efforts leading into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and beyond,” said Call, her partner. “Pam’s dedication and commitment to USA Rugby is extraordinary, and that same loyalty holds true in her relationships – I’m lucky to be her partner in that respect and more.
“Pam lives her life BIG; she operates with an 'all in' mentality – and any one, or organization to be a part of that should consider themselves lucky. I know I do. “