May 16, 2014 7:02 pm

The empire strokes back

‘At school, team sports exist to teach kids that they are less than the institutions they serve’
Lucas Varela's illustration of a rowing team©Lucas Varela

The 16-year-old me would have been ashamed. The teenager who made a creed of skipping games and mocking the First XV (albeit from a safe distance) would have cringed to see his older self standing on the towpath, cheering on his son’s boat in some rowing regatta. Such is the collective madness that descends upon parents that I even found myself cheering on other teams from his school.

This, perhaps, is the nature of parenthood. We spend years believing we are moulding the spawn into the kind of adults we think they should be, while failing to notice that, in fact, that is precisely what they are doing to us.

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Robert Shrimsley

The spawn have already rebelled against a number of my minor prejudices but no rebuff hurts as much as their embrace of organised sport. It is enough to drive a father to despair. The boy is 14 years old and has not even learnt how to forge a sick note, for heaven’s sake. Naturally, I blame their mother, who has always been one of life’s enthusiasts. It’s easily her worst quality.

I have tried to fight back with tales of guile – of the schoolmate, for example, who managed to scupper an entire cross-country competition just by putting a sign on the noticeboard saying that the run had been cancelled. I attempted to point them towards individual sports, where the triumph is personal and any glory for the school merely a regrettable side effect, but to no avail. And it isn’t just the boy; the girl came home last week fretting about whether she would be picked for borough sports. The spawn seem to like the team dynamic.

So I find myself rearranging our social life, giving up weekends to lend moral support and posting their team picture on my Facebook feed. Parental instincts are so dangerous; they lead you to drop your guard and forget that sport does not matter and that school sport matters even less. Surely a good father would not be cheering them on, but at home urging them on to more useful pursuits such as knock and run or binge drinking.

Perhaps this was my big mistake. Maybe I should have turned up to every practice proudly sporting the school scarf. I could have geed them up with stories of my own school sports glory – had there been any – and asked supportive questions until they were so bored that they dodged games just to avoid discussing them.

When I look back there seem to be many factors which drove my loathing for school sport. Obviously, there was my own innate lack of talent and the rampant favouritism which I was therefore denied. Such is the hold of school sport that even today, while it remains quite normal for studious types to be derided by both pupils and staff, you will struggle to find a teacher who disrespects the captain of a school team.

Then there were my ludicrous PE teachers. You know the type: the frustrated Clive Woodwards who wandered around in sports gear, insisted on being called “coach” and generally took it all seriously . But then lack of perspective is common to all school teams.

Yet trumping all this was my sense that at school, team sports exist to teach kids that they are less than the institutions they serve. The supposed camaraderie lasts only as long as it takes to find someone better. The official view is that organised games instil the virtues of team behaviour and loyalty to a larger cause than oneself; all the traits one needed, in fact, to get in the trenches. But then, what is a school First XV or First XI other than cannon fodder awaiting a war? School games, especially at private schools, are the last vestige of the ethos of empire. Today the playing fields of Eton; tomorrow the baking heat of Kandahar. It is no coincidence that England’s most quoted sporting poem, Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada”, begins with the “breathless hush” of a school cricket match and ends in an imperial battle with the “sand of the desert sodden red”. War, like sport, is a game at which a chap should “play up”, remembering that whatever happens, the team lives on.

Once you see it that way, conscientious objection really is the only option.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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