Losing Well Is Winning

The basketball team of Scots College, Sydney

We look to the Greater Public Schools as they are known, in Sydney, Australia, for a re calibration of values in school sport which have become somewhat blurred in recent years to say the least.

Five of the six GPS schools have apparently refused to play one of their number, Scots College, accusing the school of bringing in through scholarships a large number of basketball players. One headmaster, Tim Hawkes of Kings School, said "the use of such inducements killed ''off meaningful competition … Do we play sport to develop character, resilience and teamwork, or do we play sport to build enrollments, prestige and provide the gift of bragging rights?''

Well, quite.

Now, Australian friends tell me that all these schools have  been at it for years.  I absolutely don't know if that is accurate or not. It has though stirred up a lot of debate Down Under as we see from the letters pages of the newspapers. Perhaps we should be having the same debate.

It has been a source of common complaint over here, among both pupils and parents, that in the no-holds-barred inter-schools arms race for ascendancy, schools have frequently offered sporting scholarships at the end of the GCSE year to guarantee supremacy in their first teams in the sixth form. Often, usually rigorous academic requirements are diluted for the prospective entrants but more importantly, those who have worked hard and put their bodies on the line through the lower years to achieve sporting recognition are frequently disintermediated. Moreover, any pretence at upholding Corinthian values in sport become palpably laughable given the clear thrust to win at any and all cost. 

What makes the scouting process worse is often candidates are proposed by clubs outside schools. In some cases for example, premiership rugby clubs. Effectively, schools, or more properly the other fee paying parents, are by default subsidising the academies of premiership clubs while reducing the opportunities for their own children.  

There is no argument incidentally, that public schools have a moral and civic duty to offer places on their roll to bright and able students who would benefit and achieve their full potential in such an environment but who, for whatever reason, may be unable to afford full fees. Indeed, that endeavour is in the founding charter of most public schools. There is though, a seeming increasing influence of sports departments in this process, even to the extent that some long standing legacies in some schools have been realigned from some of the original benefactors intended beneficiaries to thus become available for sport.

Sports departments are anyway, to the majority of parents, something of a mysterious curiosity. I've been a parent at a senior school for eight years and I've never met a single one of them. They never attend parents evenings and to the best of my knowledge, none of my children have ever been coached by them. Like most, my children have benefited from coaching by their academic teachers and housemasters, the vast majority of whom are former or current players in their chosen sports themselves. Quite frankly, if the entire sports department based itself at some elite coaching unit at Loughbourgh University it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference to most of us.

Why though, should any of it matter?

Most schools warmly and affectionately embrace the best of their traditions of which sport has always played a big part. Yet the spirit in which sport is played was always of greater importance than was the result, even when considering emotional local school derbies. Courage, enthusiasm, fair play and team spirit were always held in greater esteem than having the temerity to actually score. That by the way, is not quite as odd as it may sound. 

"The Corinthians, the greatest amateur football team of all time, was a team made up of former public schoolboys who had learned to love the game at school and who wished to carry on playing whilst pursuing their careers in London. They found, to their chagrin, that they were increasingly obliged to play against professional opposition because so many of their amateur colleagues had defected to rugby in order to avoid contamination from competing against those who played for money. As money became a factor in the game, winning became more important, and the rules were changed to increase the excitement of the game. The introduction of he penalty-kick was greeted with horror by the Corinthians, for they held that no gentleman would ever deliberately commit a foul. This led them to refuse to attempt to score from or save a penalty. Sadly, their opponents had no such qualms, and the decline of the amateur teams had begun." From, "The British at Play," by Nigel Townson. 


 In the staunch belief that sport helped build Christian fellowship and patriotic citizenship these Victorian and Edwardian traits were neatly summed up by Horse & Hound magazine in 1914 when it said, 

"The individual superiority of the Briton over the Hun is due to our natural love for sports, and of all sports, surely hunting is the finest for teaching self-confidence, quick action and cool-headeness." 

I do not suggest that our young men and women are as blindly naive as the 1914 Edwardian generation might be seen by many to be. I do suggest though that many of the character traits that were celebrated then are similarly applauded today in the school communities by the students and in the Common Room and rightly so. 

I am then, completely mystified as to exactly who the sporting arms race benefits. Is it a marketing thing, something for the old boys and governors to quaff about or does it just represent slippage of self belief, "well, if they think it's a good thing on the other side of town then we'd better do it too."   Taken to extremes, and it often is, it teeters on the brink of insanity as it did when one public school spent £25,000 on a sports psychologist specifically for a Daily Mail Cup final a couple of years ago. 

There is no doubt that a combination of professionalism throughout sport, huge revenue through television rights and through some odd convergence of events the country getting used to winning the odd event has led to an increasingly cynical and less romantic view of sports and its wonderful benefits. The accelerating pursuit of excellence has too become an end in itself but I can't help feeling the spirit of games, sportsmanship and fellowship are being squandered along the way. 

How ridiculous is an Olympic sporting legacy for the rest of the country if all we've achieved is to, by default or otherwise,  just given the sports departments of public schools the resources to widen the gap even further between them and the rest of the education establishment by denuding other schools of their best sportsman.  

Men are made strong, not by winning easy battles but by losing hard fought ones.
— Dick Bass; (and just about every Dad who has watched his boy take a shoeing)