Play up and play the game

Felipe Fernández-Armesto experiences a Damascene sporting conversion

September 24, 2009

"When I am minded to take exercise," said Robert Hutchins, the legendary president of the University of Chicago, "I sit down and wait until the mood has passed." Despite this selective inertia, Hutchins was, by general acclaim, the most dynamic and effective leader in the academic world during the 1930s and '40s.

For his time, his distaste for games was unusual in the Anglo-Saxon academy. Continental European universities have always treated sport with indifference - something students are welcome to do, but in their own time and at their own expense. In Britain and the US, however, academics once believed that mens sana dwelt in corpore sano.

The Corinthian ideal assumed that sport could teach virtues complementary to those acquired in lectures and libraries: team spirit, fair play, manliness, pluck, swiftness of judgment, deference to arbitration, attention to detail, mastery of rules.

In Britain today, these virtues seem superannuated. When I was an undergraduate, 40 years ago, the pretence that young men would be on the river or in the field from 2pm to 5pm had already been eroded. Trendy tutors were seeing their pupils between those once-sacred hours. Sporting prowess - like other assets traditionally overvalued at the University of Oxford, such as aesthetic judgment and physical beauty - dwindled in esteem.

Now, university sports clubs contend for funding with other forms of leisure. Universities maintain sporting facilities, but only out of the inertia of tradition, or in order to meet boring physical "health targets". You hardly ever hear academics advocate the social, moral or spiritual benefits of sport. No British university would select candidates for admission to boost its soccer results.

I should declare my interest: I once shared Hutchins' prejudice. I am feeble and flabby. I cannot track a ball, run pufflessly or wield an oar with competence. I have self-interestedly despised sport as a distraction from study. Now, however, I belong to an institution that takes it seriously and find that I am changing my mind.

The University of Notre Dame is shameless about recruiting sporting talent, just as it is shameless about recruiting talent of every kind. Its sporting superstars help their team-mates, just as academic high-flyers help their classmates. If universities can produce outstanding accountants and musicians and politicians and priests, and fill every other valuable walk of life outside the academy with well-prepared individuals, why shouldn't they be in the first rank as academies of sport?

Traditionally, professional American footballers emerge from college teams, and Notre Dame has supplied more than its fair share of the National Football League's galacticos. Of the eight undergraduates in the US national under-20 soccer squad, two are at Notre Dame. In the UK, it would be astonishing to find a footballer with an A level.

Occasionally, conflicts between field and classroom arise. When I was a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, it was accused of hiring a hack to write basketball players' essays for them. The University of Michigan - Notre Dame's traditional rival in American football - stands accused of exceeding the permitted hours of training. There are, no doubt, some universities that take in academically underqualified candidates to boost their teams. The athletes I know, however, step up to the mark in class and make many kinds of contribution to the life of the community.

Not least among the positive effects of a sporting ethos is the impact on student morale. Home-game days here are rites of bonding. Cavorting, carnivalesque student troupes rouse supporters. The marching band drums and thunders its way around the campus, hundreds of instruments strong, looking like a Roman army on the march, with great, snaking tubas gleaming in the sunshine. I don't know what they do to the enemy, but by God they terrify me.

The cheerleaders dazzle decorously. On a campus of 11,000 students, 80,000 visitors - families and friends, alumni and future students - fill the stadium, and thousands more gather outside to have picnics, enjoy the atmosphere, celebrate the tradition and sing the university anthem in unison at the end of the game.

The event knits generations together. Masses at the university basilica overflow all weekend. At the last home game, when Notre Dame thrashed Nevada, a visiting bishop began his sermon by assuring visitors from that state that we would love them equally even if they had won. This sounds like intrusive, secular humour, but at Notre Dame, football is Christianity by other means. A great mosaic of Christ in judgment, which smothers one outer wall of the library, towers over the stadium.

I cannot understand American football and will probably never appreciate it fully, but even I find the cult infectious and respond heartily as visitors bring me news of the ding-dong peripeties of the needle match against Michigan - which in the end "my" team narrowly loses. And I feel proud that, although we mind losing, we still have enough Corinthian spirit to be happy to play a good - morally good, intellectually good - game.

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