The design pattern for schools around the world in the mid-late 1800s were the English Public Schools, especially Rugby School.
Under the ‘Muscular Christianity’ mantra, the aim was to turn out boys fully developed mentally, morally and physically – to send them out fitted in body and soul for everything the world of the 19th century could throw at them. The game of Rugby was an essential part of the school model.
Rugby football was particularly useful as an educational tool. The playing laws were a mental challenge as much as the game itself was a physical test – mere gymnastics could provide fitness, but never required a boy to think, nor to have face and confront opponents and awkward situations.
Rugby was adopted widely, praised for its proven ability to instill courage and self-discipline, in conjunction with an appreciation for the benefits that could be achieved via teamwork instead of individualism. At the very least, it was a means to ensure boys burnt off their superfluous energy.
The game though of the mid-late 1800s was a ponderous elephant when compared to today – “nothing but a struggling mass of boys, and a leather ball” – much of the contest was spent in a centre-field maul that involved most of the players in a tightly huddled group of humanity ambling back and forth from goal line to goal line. The few backs that there were, stood about the scrummage waiting to pounce on the ball, should it ever emerge.
Not only did the pushing and shoving the bulk of the game demanded help to physically develop each boy’s body, but little individual advantage (and damage) could be obtained by the bigger and older boys over the younger and smaller ones. One on one confrontations were exceptionally rare.
Indeed, in the popular Tom Brown’s Schooldays, (a best-selling book by Thomas Hughes about life at Rugby School), the crowning moment of the football match is when the diminutive Brown fearlessly dives onto a loose ball in his team’s in-goal, just as the giant horde following on is about to descend upon both him and the leather.
The lessons learned in a Rugby match were, as Hughes put it, “worth a year of common life.”
It’s easy to argue today that “it’s a different world” and the old sensibilities from past generations are meaningless – but beneath the pomp and bluff of the amateur ideal, there were sound messages. What is the role of a school? What is the role of school sport? Is it to help young men along the path towards a professional football career?
It was argued at the time that “there is a danger of going to excess, and a life spent wholly or chiefly in amusement is contrary to Christian teaching” and if professionalism was allowed to prosper “where that happened the life of the community, as well as of the individual, was in danger.”
© Sean Fagan