Building affinity and identity: the role of College sport

Joe Elliott, Collingwood College, Durham

I can remember the day, some forty years ago, when I first began to have serious doubts about my judgement. It was a Saturday afternoon at Durham University’s sportsground, Maiden Castle, at some time in a very bleak midwinter. Rain and sleet were falling and there I was, decked out in my tattered college rugby kit, anxiously glancing across the pitch at the warm-up exercises of that day’s opposition – Consett Steelworkers’ RFC. Although I might have taken some comfort from my observation that, rather than offering a variation of an All Black Haka, the opposing side’s preparations seemed largely centred upon finishing off their cigarettes, vigorously clearing their nasal and throat cavities, and engaging in good-humoured banter with one another, I had a rather sinking feeling that these powerful and hardened men might enjoy nothing more than visiting upon our somewhat callow team what was known in the world of rugby football in the 1970s as ‘a good kicking’.

My concern about my capacity for sound decision making was not merely a consequence of what proved that afternoon to be what can be euphemistically termed a significant learning opportunity. No, what troubled me was my serial offending in this respect. Darlington Railwaymen, Northumbria Police, Ushaw College seminaries preparing for the priesthood … each of these teams proving to be fiercer and less student-friendly than the last. My primary goal each week was less about ensuring glorious victory than getting through the game as unscathed as possible, while not letting down my team-mates.

So why sign up every week? Principally, it was because being a part of a College team, albeit more often than not, the third fifteen, was highly meaningful for me. The sense of camaraderie and shared purpose in adversity provided a buzz that rendered my strong desire for self-preservation largely subordinate. Travelling to the games was always a delight… We were a close-knit band of adventurers heading out to tame the sporting folk of exotic Northern lands such as Redcar, Hartlepool, Byker and Boldon Colliery. Afterwards, the post-match celebrations, perhaps fuelled by relief that (usually) we were largely still in one piece, were a classic example of bonding.

Nowadays, College sport largely takes the form of inter-collegiate competitions, and it is rare that our teams play against opponents from traditional communities in the North East of England. In some ways, this represents a significant diminution of student experience, although the rivalry between colleges can sometimes render the competitive dimension even stronger. Of course, like most students, I turned out for my College in several sports – performing more skilfully in some than others. Such activities provided us with the drive and determination to get fit, to develop our sporting skills, to learn about leadership (and followership), to work as a team, and to test ourselves against spirited opponents.

College sport, non-elitist and widely accessible, offers opportunities for all, men and women, to participate, to try out new, unfamiliar activities, to succeed modestly and to fail heroically. But it offers more than just opportunities to engage in diverting and challenging pastimes. In an age that seemingly places an increasing emphasis upon individual excellence, it also enables everyone, irrespective of talent or athleticism, the opportunity to put on their College shirt, to be part of their College team, to contribute to their College history. Despite my modest proficiency, the pride and heightened sense of college identity that I felt when playing for my rugby team, ensured that, despite my bruises, aches and pains, I would always eagerly sign up for the following week’s match. Standing on the Maiden Castle touchlines, watching Durham’s current crop of students, it is heartening to note that some things never change.

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