Good at sport and clever

July 21, 1995

Sports scholarships should only be awarded to those also able enough to do a degree, argues Huw Richards

Perhaps the first task of Roger Bannister's working party on sports scholarships should be to think of a new name for them.

The term has so many unhappy associations: "Sports scholarships - that is disgraceful. A complete sell out of higher education," was the reaction of one Fleet Street journalist. Not, as it happens, an education specialist. A sports editor.

American examples have given sports scholarships a lousy image. A pity - the original idea was a good and enlightened one. At their best, in universities which combine academic integrity with a determination to see that all their students get a decent education, they can give young people from deprived backgrounds first-class educations that would otherwise be out of reach.

The down side is a direct consequence of United States universities' central role in the economy of the US's sporting-industrial complex. In football and basketball universities act as gatekeepers for the professional game with the best players drafted annually into the paid ranks. The franchise system, concentrating top-class sport in major centres, means that university teams often provide the most significant sport in quite significant communities, in consequence becoming the focus for local pride which European towns channel through their soccer clubs.

With this interest comes prestige and income - Notre Dame's current contract for televising its football games is worth more than $300 million over ten years. And with this comes the pressure to succeed at all costs, and maintain that success. Much easier then to recruit the best players, whatever their academic and other failings. Much easier too to circumvent the sports authorities' rules on academic performance by passing the inadequate than to ensure that they actually get a proper education. Along with academic abuses go megalomaniac coaches, illegal payments by prominent fans and cover-ups of violent and criminal acts by players, all chronicled with depressing regularity by the excellent Sports Illustrated magazine. Anyone seeking an explanation of the bad odour surrounding college sport need only read SI's devastating recent expose of the University of Miami's highly successful but out-of-control football programme.

If anything similar were contemplated in Britain it would indeed be a disgrace. But the conditions which make American abuses possible simply do not apply here. No such interest, and in consequence no such income-generating potential or pressure to succeed, attaches to British university sport - the Oxford v Cambridge rugby match and boatraces are marginal exceptions of far greater social than sporting significance.

Nor, whatever the undoubted failings of our system of funding and student support, does taking a British university course entail the immense personal costs associated with many US institutions. Help is needed at the margins rather than with the entire cost, although the introduction of fees-based repayments systems might change this.

Lowering entry and academic standards is simply not on the agenda. There is no benefit in going back to times, much beloved of the sports media's hard core of anti-intellectuals, when a decent square-cut or the ability to win line-out ball were seen as adequate Oxbridge entry qualifications. Richard Gordon's account, albeit fictionalised, of a medical school interview in which the candidate had only to establish that he was the son of a doctor, public-school educated and a rugby player casts an alarming light on the way the medical profession was once recruited.

But the critics do have a point when they note inflexibilities like Oxford's refusal to let Philip Weston defer his place. Weston had won his place against the normal competition, but wished to defer to lead an England under-19 cricket tour of India. This might have been thought a suitably broadening experience - in social and personal as well as sporting terms. Would Oxford have been similarly grudging to a talented young musician or artist ?

The British scholarship model is a matter of buying time for the all-rounders - recognising that however great your commitment and time-management skills, competing at a high level may not be compatible with fulfiling your academic potential under exactly the same timetable as contemporaries with fewer commitments. Here is one group who can give an unequivocal welcome to the move to modularisation, credits, semesters and the greater all-round flexibility of academic provision.

As Tony Settle, the former Great Britain middle-distance runner who heads student services at Sunderland University, says: "We try to be flexible to meet the needs of every other group - why should they be left out?" University expertise surely also has an important role to play in the proposed Academy of Sport, an Australian concept much admired by the Prime Minister for its steady production of high-quality cricketers. But there are potential costs.

Schools, which have been blamed for everything since Noye's Fludde, are well used to taking the blame for national sporting failure, real and imagined. If the universities take their part, as they should, in the new academy they must accept that this will also be their lot.

And there will be losses because they happen to everyone at some time or another. Germany's footballers are currently incapable of beating Bulgaria. Australian tennis is in hibernation. No Frenchman has won the Tour de France in a decade and American track athletics, sprinters apart, is making little international impact.

Nor is the academy necessarily the answer. Single factor explanations rarely suffice. Australian sport has always been one of the world's great over-achievers and the revival of its cricket may owe as much to its excellence at club level as to anything else. Mass participation opportunities - like those offered by Dutch football and Swedish tennis - appear the surest way to stimulate top-level success.

But just as academic life increasingly recognises the importance of sport, not just as a Wednesday afternoon relaxation but as a legitimate subject of study, so does the Bannister committee and the appointment of Durham's Sam Stoker to the Sports Council signal governmental recognition of what universities have to offer sport. Insularities are always worth breaching.

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