True Blues or mercenaries?

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Matt Evans-Young: Against

Do you imagine that Joe Roff, the recently departed ex-Australia rugby player, went through the same interview process as many of the people that are reading this article?

I can’t imagine a nervous Joe sitting in front of several tutors being grilled as to why he chose Politics, Philosophy and Economics. To be honest, I would have loved to have read his personal statement. The same goes for Anton Oliver, the Dark Blues’ newest superstar recruit, as well as almost all of last year’s Blues boat. Let’s not kid ourselves: most these athletes probably weren’t offered a place at Oxford because of their academic prowess. Do you think that 3 people in last years Varsity boat all just happen to have an interest in management research, or is there perhaps something about the degree and about the way in which these people passed Oxford’s stringent entry requirements that prompted them to choose it?
I obviously know the argument for letting athletes of this calibre into our University; while they get a Masters of some description for their year here, they give back to the University, be it in the form of coaching, prestige or just simply success. I’m sure that those of the opinion that this type of recruitment is a good thing will point to the fact that Oxford has a long tradition of sporting excellence in certain fields, and this is just adding to that history.

But is it not tarnishing our reputation in some ways? Oxford has produced many fine rugby players, there’s no doubt. People such as Stewart Barnes have gone on to represent England. But this was in the days when professionalism in sport was nowhere near the level it is now. Players of the quality of Barnes nowadays would be going straight into the premiership, skipping out university entirely. Now the only way we can get players of the same standard is pick them up after their illustrious careers have ended. Why has Oxford produced so few footballers of note? Maybe because football has been professional for much longer than rugby; perhaps we should accept that sport itself has moved on. Although some may point to America as a place where the best talent in the country is courted by universities, we must remember that this is because, in sports such as American football, the draft system means that these athletes wouldn’t be able to make it as a professional without the development with which college athletics provides them. That is not the case here. Watching the boat race last year, it was hard to empathise with the Oxford team, a mix-match of various world championship competitors, all but one of them on a one year course, perhaps killing time after not making their respective Olympic squads. How is the average student to relate to these people? We won! Fantastic! But does that prove we’re better at sport than Cambridge, or just better at recruiting?

The ultimate goal for anyone taking part in sport at this university is a Blue. This policy of trying to lure the best talent possible with promises of easy qualifications and special treatment surely has a detrimental effect on the undergraduates who strive to reach the top of Oxford sport. Granted, there are several undergraduates in the OURFC squad, and they are performing very well, but what can you imagine would be said to an aspiring hooker with hopes of appearing at Twickenham? Probably something along the lines of “sorry mate, we’ve got the most capped All Blacks hooker of all time, good luck in the second team”.

What we have now is Oxford and Cambridge operating a form of ringer system in the blue ribbon sports. It’s the playground equivalent of someone getting their big brother and his mates to play in a kick around. These teams do not reflect the Oxford student population as a whole. How many of the Blues rowers do you see down at Park End on a Wednesday? And if they do not represent the university, if the university has no real affinity with them, then what is the point? The recruitment process for these top sports is essentially just a free meal ticket for retired pros and idle world champions, with a degree in management research at the end of it.

Sean Lennon: For

Now this isn’t what I’m here to argue, but to say that all these sportsmen are academically inferior is frankly a myth. Pretty much all of these supposedly suspicious sportsmen have sterling backgrounds.

OUBC President Colin Smith, for example, this year a silver medallist in Beijing, has a degree from St Catz. Nick Brodie, 2008’s victorious Boat Race cox, completed his undergraduate degree in Geography in Oxford, and a whole host of the others have degrees from institutes as prestigious as Yale, Harvard and Imperial. Even Anton Oliver, former New Zealand rugby star turned blue, not only possesses a degree from his home in Otago but also openly aired concerns that he was accepted into Oxford for his rugby prowess alone. Notably, it is reported that such concerns were dismissed by the admissions tutors.

Yet like I said, that’s not what I’m here to argue. Frankly, I don’t actually care what degrees the elite sportsmen of Oxford are pursuing. This is after all a sports column, and what matters is that these lambasted individuals are elite sportsmen. Universities (yes, even the creaking halls of Oxford and Cambridge) are centres of sporting excellence across the globe, no matter how much that annoys academics. In America, they are the foundation for professional basketball and American football, while at home Loughborough can be seen as a sporting academy for anything from athletics to cricket.

Why then are we supposedly immune from this worldwide trend? Academic snobs may scoff, but Oxford is inarguably a centre for all manner of sporting excellence from athletics, to rugby, and to, of course, rowing.

In this last category, our influence is not just current, but historic; the boat race has been a feature of the British sporting calendar for well over a hundred years. It is numbered alongside such milestone events as the Grand National as one with its terrestrial TV rights protected to keep it in the public eye. Clearly then, the Boat Race is as much of an institution to Oxford as college sport is in America. With this in mind what exactly do the naysayers propose? To restrict Oxford sporting entry to British undergraduates? Rubbish. The standard of rowing would fall catastrophically, and what was once an Oxford tradition would plummet to the depths of mediocrity.

Yet in no way do the benefits end here. Allowing the top sportsmen from across the globe to compete for Oxford can only be beneficial for other sporstmen. How much will the current rugby squad be learning from the professionalism and experience of Anton Oliver, or the current crop of British oarsmen from Olympic medallist Colin Smith? The evidence is indeed in the results. Just last week OURFC took a professional outfit, Worcester Warriors, to pieces, while previous young British rowers such as Smith himself, Andy Triggs-Hodge and Tom James have gone on to great heights after having rowed with the best at Oxford. Really, those with the most vehement complaints are those who can’t make the squad, but to be honest, if they aren’t good enough, they might as well go home.

Aside from the sheer standard of the sport, does it not fill the rest of us as spectators with pride at the brilliance of our sports teams? Not only is the Boat Race watched by millions worldwide, but our rugby and football Varsity games are played in professional grounds. The rugby is at Twickenham on Sky Sports One, for God’s sake! I’m sure very few of the massive crowd cheering on our boaties to an enormous win over the Tabs this year really cared who was in the boat. With the college system being so divisive, something has to fill us with communal pride and the brilliance of our sports teams is largely it.

So for tradition, sporting class and communal pride, lay aside your complaints and get behind our star sportsmen, because at the end of the day, doesn’t everybody just love to win?

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