Sporting fanatics

US universities feel the white-line fever

August 8, 2013

Odessa, Texas, has a population just short of 100,000. It boasts the largest jackrabbit statue in the world (10ft tall), although the competition is not particularly fierce, celebrating the jackrabbit rodeo in which the animals were lassoed from horseback. Alas, this is now defunct. What it does have is a high school American football stadium that seats more than 19,000, a fifth of the population.

They take their football seriously in the US, how seriously being evident from the fact that between 1995 and 2008, 29 high school players died of heatstroke playing it. In 2010 there were 67,000 cases of concussion. In 2012, a student at Mission Hills High School in California was paid $4.4 million (£2.9 million) in compensation for a head injury received on the field. That same year it was revealed that the New Orleans Saints had been paid bonuses for injuring opposition players. It was the LA Raiders running back Bo Jackson who said: “If my mother put on a helmet and shoulder pads and a uniform that wasn’t the same as the one I was wearing, I’d run over her if she was in my way. And I love my mother.” It is, however, an equal opportunities sport (of sorts): between 1982 and 2007, there were 68 fatal, disabling or serious injuries recorded among cheerleaders.

In the summer I would be no good at throwing a javelin and was always amazed that the main prize was evidently won by the same boy every year - Victor Ludorum

The ambition of high school football players is to make it on to a university team, where playing football can sometimes seem more important than gaining a degree. When teaching at an American university, whose president announced that “a university is judged by its football team”, I had a call from a football coach asking me to pass a student on the team who was absent even when he was present.

The University of Michigan Stadium (the third-largest in the world) is a few seats short of 110,000. By contrast, Arsenal’s seats 60,000 and Wembley 90,000. In the US, alumni fly in with chequebooks, ready to make tax-deductible donations.

So what’s gone wrong in this country? Why aren’t we willing to run over our mothers and lay down our lives in the name of the team?

Leaving aside the Boat Race, if two universities play one another in the UK, they are liable to be watched by six people and a dog, and you can see that even the dog is feigning interest. There is no stadium, only a muddy pitch with wavy white lines marked out by underpaid groundsmen. No alumni fly in. Not that university sport here is injury free: there is, indeed, a claims company that specialises in football injuries. (“Suffering from a cruciate-ligament injury that was not your fault? This could be worth tens of thousands.”)

I myself had half-colours at water polo and judo as an undergraduate (half because I wasn’t any good at either). I was taken to hospital in Sheffield when playing in the former, having been back-elbowed by an opponent. It was well understood at the university that if you could move at all you should crawl away from the local hospital because A&E was liable to be manned by a medical student you had last seen standing on one leg, naked, conducting Jerusalem with a beer bottle. And sure enough, I drew one of them who assured me that my eardrum was intact in spite of the fact that if I pinched my nose and blew, air would rush out. I abandoned judo when I refereed a bout in which someone’s collarbone snapped with a sound that reverberated around a gymnasium evidently designed to amplify the impact of pain.

School sport is no better. In girls’ schools, as I recall, pupils were required to don navy blue knickers and run up and down with hockey sticks and bright red knees while boys would be sent on cross-country runs, while the masters sat in cars smoking cigarettes, although I did once cheat by getting a lift from the only boy in the school who owned a car, coming in second and three-legged. Yes, detention.

In the summer I would be no good at throwing a javelin and was always amazed that the main prize was evidently won by the same boy every year – Victor Ludorum.

I, though, attended a state school. Things are different at Eton, on whose playing fields they still practise winning the Battle of Waterloo (presumably with Prussians on the reserve bench). They play cricket matches against Harrow at Lord’s Cricket Ground, watched by more than the numbers who turn out at Middlesex’s first-class games, although I confess that not all of them say “hice” for “house” and “gel” for “girl”. And if you watched the Olympic rowing at Dorney Lake, you will be reassured to know that it is owned by Eton. One of its many playing fields is called Mesopotamia, where the officer class doubtless train for invading Iraq, that being its modern name. They even play one game, the Field Game, which is unique to the school and hence cannot be played against anyone else, but then, my dear, why would one wish to?

Incidentally, a friend, knowing of my genetic suspicion of public schools, arranged for me to give away prizes at Eton. When I arrived, I realised that I had left my wallet behind and had to borrow money from the headmaster. I could see he had expected no better. The pupils duly assembled, fresh from their classes in privilege, and subsequently took me to their expansive and expensive rooms, putting me at ease.

“Where are you going to university?” I asked.

“Magdalen, Jesus, John’s, Balliol,” they replied, effortlessly translating from the vulgar, being used to translating from the vulgate.

Of course, university is a bit downmarket if you come from Eton. Fees at the University of Oxford are £9,000. Fees at Eton are £32,000. Oh, and judo costs £84 extra.

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