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What is University Sport for?

       When I was an undergraduate I shared some philosophy tutorials with a man called Ray Weedon. I knew that he played tennis and that he represented South Africa in the Davis Cup, but that was the only tennis fact about him I knew. Last week, fifty years later, I looked up his record and discovered that he had won a total of six matches in the main draw at Wimbledon. He even took a set off Rod Laver at the French Open. And the first time I ever went to Cambridge I stood at a bar waiting to be served and realised that the man in front of me in the queue was Mark Cox, the British number one male tennis player. But for me these tennis stars were insignificant compared with the university rugby captain in my third year, one Tommy Bedford who also captained South Africa. Any interest I had in impressing academic tutors was too insignificant to be measured when compared with my interest in impressing Mr. Bedford.

In the 1960s elite universities were still full of elite sportsmen and women. This was the aftermath of the period which I call the amateur hegemony. I would argue that the high period of amateurism was (just) over: it began in 1895, by which time the institutions of modern sport were more or less in place, and ended in 1961 when Association Football abolished the maximum wage and other major sports began to devalue or abolish amateur status. Nevertheless, important vestiges lingered on for decades, albeit steadily eroded by the commercial power of television. But it was still absolutely natural for a university to be a locus for well known sports personalities and the streets of a university town were populated by people recognised as “the athlete” or “the cricketer” rather than “the philosopher” or “the medical student”. After all, universities had played a large part in the development of modern sport. The “Parker’s Piece Rules” formulated in Cambridge in 1848 are generally regarded as the precursor of the Football Association rules of 1863, which themselves are considered to be the model and exemplar for the codification and modernisation of games. In 1880 it was three Oxford athletes (Clement Jackson, Montague Sherman and Bernard Wise) who established the Amateur Athletic Association and thereby set, with strange permanence, the events and procedures of global athletics. Only eleven years before I went to university one of the most heralded events in post-war sport had taken place at the ground where I played rugby when Roger Bannister had run the mile in under four minutes at Iffley Road.

In retrospect that whole world looks doomed. Television was bound to create a world in which the earnings of elite sports performers would increase exponentially and the university would no longer offer a route to the top in sport. An interesting aspect of this is the fate of American tennis. Sport in US universities is, of course, a glaring exception to what goes on in the rest of the world. College sport is a kind of industry which outstrips professional, “major league”, sport in many respects – total live attendance, for example. In the official language of the National Collegiate Athletic Association it remains an “amateur” activity, a world of “student athletes” motivated by “avocations”. To many non-Americans, including generations of British sportsmen who had to compete with the products of American colleges, these so-called amateurs seemed highly professional with their coaches, scholarships and high-profile stadia and events. In the twenty years after 1945 there were nine different men’s Wimbledon champions from the USA, most of them the products of college tennis. In the twenty first century there hasn’t been an American men’s singles champion at Wimbledon since Pete Sampras in 2000. Even the American college system cannot produce players to compete with the likes of Djokovic and Murray, products of a gladiatorial-commercial system which has seen them devote themselves to a single sport since they were children. (Jack Sock is currently the highest ranked US male tennis player at 26 and he didn’t go to college.) So it should be no surprise to us that higher education no longer plays the part that it did in producing top players in such sports as Rugby Union.

University sport as a component of the amateur hegemony contained several kinds of structured incentive which in theory fitted oddly with the idea of amateurism. Sporting prowess could get you into university: in my college it was admitted that it was taken into consideration “all other things being equal”, but things often looked pretty equal. Rhodes Scholarships made no bones about recruiting “all-rounders”, meaning people who had demonstrated sporting prowess as well as academic competence; they contributed much to Oxford sport over the years. At the other end of university life it was the established cliché that “a blue was worth more than a first”, especially in the City of London. I don’t think anyone would now admit to basing their undergraduate admissions policy to an elite university on sporting criteria; Paul Hayes at Keble College in the 1980s was probably the last to admit doing so.

There are some interesting small exceptions to this though they would not qualify as part of an academic elite. There are some colleges with a high emphasis on sport where sporting ability obviously does count in admissions. The extreme example is Hartpury College in Gloucestershire (affiliated to the University of the West of England), four times BUCS national football champions. . Hartpury has produced a number of professional footballers, though not at the Premiership level. There is an interesting question as to how this benefits the college as an educational institution. It is parallel in many ways to Howard University in Washington DC which emerged from obscurity by winning the NCAA soccer championship in 1974. But whereas most sports fans in the USA have now heard of Howard University it is doubtful whether one per cent of the British population know of Hartpury’s achievements. And at the other end of a spectrum the University Boat Race continues as if the amateur-elite era were still in full swing. But rowing offers a unique set of characteristics: a sport with a high global status but without substantial commercial development – and the boat race employs largely oversees and graduate students, thus pre-empting any admissions issues. By comparison the Varsity rugby match is not remotely the kind of sporting occasion it used to be, played out to a sparse crowd with little press interest, notwithstanding the BBC’s decision to show it live in 2015 and the presence of a British and Irish Lion in Dr. Jamie Roberts.

In suggesting that the place of sport in universities is no longer intuitively obvious I am minded of several conversations with colleagues I had in the 1990s. Our department (Politics and International Studies at Warwick) was becoming larger and more international. It was also becoming far less “tenured” with many people on three year contracts. Understandably, many employees in this position did not invest in property in the area, but commuted from other parts of the country. Often they chose to concentrate their teaching in the middle part of the week, staying in the area from Tuesday to Thursday. Then they were told that because of the university’s commitment to sport they were not allowed to teach on Wednesday afternoons. If they came from Western European universities, in many of which sport is treated as a private recreation rather than an institutional interest, then they tended to be both amazed and appalled by this arrangement, which still exists even though it is often “honoured in the breach” in various ways.

The question of Wednesday afternoons is the tip of an iceberg. The iceberg is the much bigger question of the resources devoted to sport in British universities. The recurrent expenditure is difficult to judge as it comes under many headings and the question of whether sport is on the curriculum is obviously important. In any case, it is not large by American standards: it is estimated that students at Rutgers University in New Jersey, for example, pay an average of over a thousand dollars in fees so that the university can maintain its elite sports programme. Most British students now choose to pay for sport if they want it. But consider the opportunity capital cost of university sports facilities: my own arithmetic tells me that the sixty or so under-used cricket fields of Oxford and Cambridge are worth at least half a billion pounds.

It is not immediately obvious how one should answer sceptical questions about the resources devoted to university sport partly because the questions are not on the agenda. One university director of sport told me that all the senior officers he had to deal with were prepared to assume without question that sport was important and that most of them were sports enthusiasts. But universities are now barely contributing to the sporting excellence so beloved of governments. The general cluster of other reasons given by all political parties for subsidising sport – that it promotes health, is a prophylactic for crime, creates a sense of community and so on – actually works less for universities than for other parts of society. One should consider the recent National Association of Head Teachers’ report which claimed that a third of children were simply “priced out” of sporting participation. And there is no credibility at all to the claim that elite sport and mass participation are symbiotic: governments have claimed it time out of mind, but the evidence is entirely against it.

But to root the case for university sport purely in the “sport for all” tradition of argument raises more questions than it answers, especially about established practice. Why are university sports thought of as student activities excluding employees such as the maintenance staff? Should individualistic and recreational activities such as skateboarding and pinball have the same status as team games?Why should students have more spent on their sporting opportunities than anyone else? Shouldn’t universities concentrate on broadly based intra-mural activities rather than more exclusive inter-university competition?

I don’t think there are any obvious or established answers to these questions, but I do think there is a complicated and convincing, if slightly mystical, answer to the question of why sport should be an important part of university life. It starts with Albert Camus. There are many T-shirts in the world in which he is quoted as saying, ” Everything I have learned about morality and the obligations of men I have learned from football”. Unfortunately (predictably?) this quotation is not attributable, though Camus often made similar remarks and football appears in both his most famous novels (L’Etranger and La Peste) as a symbol of the goodness of life to be contrasted with its essential “absurdity”. What he did say in print, in an article in France Football in 1957, translates as ” . . . what I most surely know in the long run about morality and the obligations of men I owe to sport, I learned it at R.U.A.” This stands for Racing Université d’Algiers for whom Camus played as a junior (and only as a junior according to his most substantial biographer, Olivier Todd).

Defenders of sport should never eschew the high ground. It is an important part of education – and if that means that non-sportsmen and women are in a respect uneducated that must be accepted. That professional sport is often a distortion and abuse of what sport should be must also be accepted – as it is for art and religion. For a university not to offer the experience of teamwork, of winning and losing, of the shams of triumph and disaster would be to lessen what it has to offer by a huge margin.

I have an absurd claim to make in this connection, though “absurd” in the ordinary sense rather than Camus’ philosophical sense. It is that I have played for the same university sports club for forty six seasons: it is now called Warwick University Staff And Graduate Cricket Club (WUSGCC). I made my debut against Leamington College in May 1970 and in 2015 I turned out at Blenheim Park and Harwell International among other places. ( In English village cricket this longevity would be commonplace, but I suspect for a university it may be a record.) For a long time I would have said that the greatest thing about the club was that it was an inter-disciplinary forum like no other, a place where physicists could explain the similarities between cricket balls and asteroids to German scholars while we all pursued a collective ambition. More recently it has been the inter-cultural experience which I would emphasise. Most players have been from cricket-playing nations, of course, though we have had Germans, Chinese, Frenchmen and Spaniards who have played, after a modicum of coaching. We have talked about everything, including, of course, attitudes to competition, the meaning of cheating and so on. I relish the emails I have received from people who have returned home and who tell me that they will never forget the club and that they learned something about life as well as about England while they were with us. This must be the kind of experience many people have in university sport, even if their experience is usually a great deal briefer than mine.

Everything that was best about university life, I found it at W.U.S.G.C.C.

Lincoln Allison 

A  version of this article first appeared in Times Higher Education.