By Eoghan Sheehy (WG’16, participant), Ben Peskoe (WG’16 participant), Ben Vinograd (JD/MBA‘18, Rugby President)
To the surprise of none, 50+ members of Wharton Men’s Rugby team found themselves in prison during a spring break trip to Argentina. Only 5 hours after arriving in the country, we were inside the walls of Unidad Penitenciaria N° 48 de San Martín, a prison outside of Buenos Aires. Tired though we were, we steadied ourselves for the task ahead. Rugby was the order of the day. Two Wharthog teams, an A-side and a B-side, would go shoulder to shoulder against Los Espartanos – 4 teams of inmates, staff and coaches.
Waiting on the other side of a number of fences were the Espartanos, a team started in 2009 to teach inmates rugby values, responsibility, spirituality and education, all with the goal of reducing recidivism. The team, made up of 30 inmates in cellblock 8 and another twenty or thirty from other cellblocks, practices rugby three times a week and has been a force of change for its players. So far, the recidivism rate is incredibly close to zero, versus the almost 60% for the rest of the prison population. As we entered the prison yard, we were at first met by a single inmate, standing tall as we approached. He quickly welcomed us with a hug and kiss on the cheek for each of the 40 Hogs that played that day.
After a round of speeches and pleasant exchanges between players, we kitted up and took to the field. As Rob Struck (WG’16) translated for the Hogs, the coaches ripped into his Venezuelan accent but Zach Kahn (WG’16) was on-hand to back his buddy up. The surface was rough soil and stone, with high walls and barbed wire surrounding the pitch. Each Wharton team was placed in a bracket with two teams of Espartanos, and the day began with a round robin within each bracket. The games would be played under a set of rugby rules called “sevens”, where each side has seven players at a time (as opposed to the usual 15), and halves are only seven minutes long (as opposed to the usual 40).
Los Espartanos were hungry to play and made for tough opposition. There were no more than 1 or 2 scores between the teams in each game. On the A-side, tough running from Alex Kadesch (WG’16) and Captain Craig Wilson (WG’17) and deft passing from Jeff Perkowski (WG’17) led to one tie and one win in their bracket. On the B-side, rookies Jim Woods (WG’17) and Henry So (WG’17) showed quickness and strength. Trevor Young (WG’17) decided to play on the inmates’ team, claiming that their jersey was more flattering to his skin tone.
The final showdown was between the Wharton A-side and an all-star Espartanos team consisting of coaches and inmates. The dancing feet of Eduardo “Coco” Oderigo, a former top-level Argentinian player, were the Espartanos biggest threat. Jesus & ‘Big Diego’ were also to be feared for their physical play. After some early scores from the home side, Wharton crept back into it by halftime, containing the Espartanos star players. However, as the second half wore on, fatigue set in for the Wharton side, and the Espartanos came out on top.
Soon after, the post-game banter got going. This is an integral part of rugby — known in Spanish as tercer tiempo (the third half) — and we got a flavor of Los Espartanos’ hospitality. We shared chorizo sandwiches and non-alcoholic drinks amidst bravado about best tackle, score and pass of the day. These guys were unfailingly friendly and also very polite. One of the Hogs remarked that Los Espartanos were as gracious in opposition as any MBA team we’d played. They were incredibly keen to talk to us about rugby and were very grateful for their modest facilities. Some of the former inmates had even played in front of Pope Francis during a recent tour to Italy. Rugby, generally considered a sport for the privileged in Argentina, was doing some real good in a maximum-security prison.
The Hog is a social animal so we spent two hours or more talking in broken Spanish to the inmates and coaches. One inmate (who had smashed me in a tackle moments earlier) told us about his 4-½ year sentence for robbing a home close to our hotel in northern Buenos Aires. We asked him how he felt such a long sentence would impact his life. He simply said that he didn’t believe it was a long sentence. We didn’t really know how to respond. We had just shared the pitch, condescension was not what he wanted from me. I told him that the rugby fields outside the prison were beautiful. He agreed and added that the women outside were more beautiful too.
As we left the grounds and began the remainder of our Spring Break tour there were a lot of bruised, reflective Hogs on the bus. Many remarked that participating in rugby is the most rewarding thing they have done at Wharton.
The camaraderie and physical competition make for a truly unique experience. The inmates of Unidad Penitenciaria N° 48 seemed to feel that too. The Hogs had flown halfway around the world for a 9-day raucous celebration of that lifestyle. We found a bunch of lads not too dissimilar from ourselves who had a harder start in life. Off the back of that, the club leadership is planning a fundraiser in early April to raise money for equipment for Los Espartanos. We hope that you will join us in the effort to build this program with the ultimate aim of reducing recidivism among Buenos Aires’ poor.