Campus sport is about more than winning or losing

Ahead of the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, Lincoln Allison ponders the decline of sport at university, and the value of such pursuits

March 24, 2016
Moritz Hafner celebrates Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race win
Source: Getty

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 was Mark Cox, the UK’s top-ranked tennis player at the time. As an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, I shared some philosophy tutorials with a man called Ray Weedon. I knew that he played tennis and represented South Africa in the Davis Cup, but only recently learned, 50 years later, that he won a total of six matches in the main draw at Wimbledon and even took a set off Rod Laver at the French Open. Yet these tennis stars were insignificant compared with the university rugby captain I met in my third undergraduate year: Tommy Bedford, who also captained South Africa. Any interest I had in impressing academic tutors was insignificant compared with my interest in impressing Bedford.

By the mid-1960s, the high period of amateurism was, I would argue, (just) over. It began in 1895, the year of the inaugural meeting of the International Olympic Committee (paving the way for the inaugural modern Olympic Games in Athens the following year), by which time the institutions of modern sport were more or less in place. It ended in 1961, when the English Football League abolished the maximum wage and other major sports began to devalue or abolish amateur status. Nevertheless, important vestiges of amateurism lingered for decades. It was still absolutely natural for a university to be a locus for well-known sports personalities until relatively recently. People were often thought of 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 – themselves considered the model for the codification and modernisation of other games. In 1880, it was three Oxford athletes (Clement Jackson, Montague Sherman and Bernhard Wise) who established the Amateur Athletic Association and thereby set, with strange permanence, the events and procedures of global athletics. In 1954, only 11 years before I went to university, one of the most celebrated events in post-war sport had taken place at the ground where I played rugby – Iffley Road in Oxford – when Roger Bannister had run a mile in under four minutes.

But, in retrospect, that whole amateur world was always doomed. Television was bound to mean that the earnings of elite sports performers would increase exponentially and that universities would no longer offer a route to the top in sports such as cricket and rugby union.

We can trace a similar development in American tennis. Sport in US universities is, of course, a glaring exception to what goes on in the rest of the world. There, it is a kind of industry that outstrips professional, “major league” sport in many respects (such as total live attendance), and the professional ranks of sports such as basketball and American football are dominated by those who honed their skills at college. In the official language of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, college sport remains an “amateur” activity, a world of “student athletes” for whom sport is merely an “avocation”. To many non-Americans, including generations of British sportsmen who had to compete with the products of US colleges, these so-called amateurs seemed highly professional, with their coaches, scholarships and high-profile stadiums and events.

But even US universities are now struggling to produce globally competitive tennis players. In the 20 years after 1945, there were nine men’s Wimbledon champions from the US, most of them the products of college tennis. Yet there hasn’t been an American men’s singles champion at Wimbledon since Pete Sampras in 2000, and there are currently only two college-educated Americans in the world’s top 50 – John Isner and Sam Querrey – which is a historic low. The US college system can no longer produce players to compete with the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray: products of a gladiatorial-commercial system that has seen them devote themselves to a single sport since they were children.

University sport as a component of what I call “the amateur hegemony” incorporated several kinds of structured incentives, which, in theory, fitted oddly with the idea of amateurism. It was an established cliché that “a blue is worth more than a first” in recruiters’ eyes, especially in the City of London. The awarders of Rhodes Scholarships made no bones about their preference for “all‑rounders”, meaning people who had demonstrated sporting prowess as well as academic competence – many of whom contributed much to Oxford sport over the years. And nor were university admissions officers blind to sporting prowess: in my college, it was admitted that it was taken into consideration “all other things being equal”, but it was uncanny how often all other things did look pretty equal. I don’t think any elite university would now admit to giving sporting criteria a role in its undergraduate admissions policy; Paul Hayes, fellow and admissions tutor at Oxford’s Keble College in the 1980s, was famous for being the last person openly to defend this practice.

Outside the academic elite, there are some interesting small exceptions to this general picture. In certain colleges with a strong emphasis on sport, sporting ability obviously does count in admissions. An extreme example is Hartpury College in Gloucestershire (affiliated to the University of the West of England): four-time champion of the British Universities and Colleges Sport’s football tournament in recent years. Hartpury has produced a number of professional footballers, although not at the Premiership level. It is an interesting question as to how this benefits the college as an educational institution.

A parallel case, in many ways, is Howard University in Washington DC, which emerged from obscurity by winning the NCAA soccer championship in 1974, and has remained prominent ever since. But whereas most sports fans in the US have now heard of Howard, it is doubtful whether 1 per cent of the British public know of Hartpury’s achievements.

The UK’s Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, which takes place this weekend, is one of the few major sporting events that continues as if the amateur hegemony were still in full swing. But rowing offers a unique set of characteristics: a sport with a high global status but no substantial commercial development. And the fact that the Boat Race largely features overseas and postgraduate students pre-empts any worries about admissions criteria. By comparison, the Oxford-Cambridge 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 again from 2015.

Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race, 1970s

In suggesting that the place of sport in universities is no longer intuitively obvious, I am reminded of several conversations that I had with colleagues in the 1990s. Our department (politics and international studies at the University of 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 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 – they tended to be both amazed and appalled by this arrangement.

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 UK universities. The recurrent expenditure is difficult to calculate because it comes under many headings (and the question of whether sport is on the curriculum is obviously important). In any event, it is not large by US standards: it is estimated that students at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, for example, pay an average of more than $1,000 (£715) 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 costs of university sports facilities: my own arithmetic tells me that the 60 or so underused 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. One director of sport recently told me that most of the senior officers he had to deal with were sports enthusiasts and all assumed without question that sport was important. But universities are now barely contributing to the sporting excellence so beloved of governments. The cluster of other reasons given by all UK political parties for subsidising sport – that it promotes health, prevents crime, creates a sense of community and so on – is far less convincing in the case of universities, where many students would take part anyway, than it is for other parts of society. (A recent National Association of Head Teachers report claimed that a third of children were simply “priced out” of sporting participation.)

Furthermore, there is no credibility at all to the claim that elite sport and mass participation are symbiotic. Governments have suggested this time out of mind – most recently to justify the costs of staging the London 2012 Olympics. Yet not only is there no aggregative evidence to suggest that elite success encourages mass participation, there is a strong suspicion in some cases that it discourages it. In the 20 years since rugby union permitted professionalism, the number of people watching the game has risen hugely, but the number of adults playing it in the UK has fallen by more than 50 per cent. Part of the reason for this must be that the size, fitness and specialism of contemporary players are actually discouraging to more average performers.

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, for instance, are university sports thought of as student activities, which typically exclude employees such as the maintenance staff? Should individualistic and recreational pursuits, such as skateboarding, enjoy the same status and financial support as team games? Why should students have more spent on their sporting activities than anyone else? And shouldn’t universities concentrate on broadly based intramural participation rather than more exclusive inter-university competition?

I would like to offer a complicated and 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 which he is quoted as saying: “Everything I have learned about morality and the obligations of men I have learned from football.” Perhaps predictably, this isn’t quite accurate, but he did say: “What I most surely know in the long run about morality and the obligations of men I owe to sport, I learned it at RUA.” This stands for sport club Racing Universitaire d’Alger, for which Camus played as a junior.

It is undeniable that professional sport (as well, arguably, as art and religion) is often a distortion and abuse of what it should be. But defenders of sport should never eschew the high ground. Sport is an important part of education. 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. And if that implies that non-sportsmen and women are, in a sense, uneducated, that implication must also be accepted.

I have an absurd claim to make in this connection – although “absurd” in the ordinary sense, rather than Camus’ philosophical sense. I have played for the same university sports club – Warwick University Staff and Graduate Cricket Club (WUSGCC) – for 46 seasons. (In English village cricket, this longevity would be commonplace, but I suspect that 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 interdisciplinary forum like no other, a place where physicists could explain the similarities between cricket balls and asteroids to literature scholars while we all pursued a collective ambition. More recently, it has been the intercultural experience that I would emphasise; most players have been from cricket-playing nations, of course, but Germans, Chinese, Frenchmen and Spaniards have also taken part, 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 that 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.

So let’s put it like this: everything that was best about university life, I found it at the WUSGCC.

Lincoln Allison is emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick and the author of a number of books on the politics of sport.

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Print headline: This sporting life

Reader's comments (1)

A great article which should be publicised more openly. Sport in an integral part of education and with the way society is advancing today, on the one hand towards a very individualistic self interest in achieving highly recognised achievements, we are loosing the very important part of greatness which comes on working together as a team be it in agriculture, your niche of friends or society. Education is not only about the hard facts and application but also knowing how to react in different environments and experiences. Sport is a great crash course through all these feelings. The main problem may be all the focus on high end competition and results rather than the core important values which sport brings to all those who do not practise sport professionally.

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