When I first signed on to write a sports column for the Record while at the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (WEPO), the main idea was to join the baseball team, have some zany experiences with fellow bad athletes and write about it. Ultimately, this did not happen. What happened, instead, was that I got to peer into a wildly different system of sports institutions in England.
It should not surprise anyone when I say that college sports are much more popular in the United States than they are in the United Kingdom, but the extent to which the sports structure is different is somewhat astounding.
First, and most obviously, university athletics, with a few exceptions (like rowing), are much less institutionalized than they are in the United States. As an extreme example, take my experience with baseball. I was told by a WEPO alum that there was a University-wide baseball team at Oxford that had the talent level of a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. Considering that this roughly describes my athletic ability, I was especially interested. However, when I got to the Oxford club fair, the team was not even there. Imagine a U.S. college sports team simply disappearing from one year to the next. It just does not happen. But in the United Kingdom, collegiate sports are taken much less seriously, which is probably for the best.
Since collegiate athletics are less institutionalized, there are fewer ethical dilemmas involving money and university prestige. I could not even imagine an Oxford professor designing an easy-A or no-show class just for athletes, but this practice is rampant in U.S. Div. I schools.
Also of note is that university teams do not play exclusively against other universities. They also play against local (townie) sports clubs. Admittedly, I am not sure if this is true of all teams at Oxford, but it is certainly true of some. Even a club sport on a U.S. campus would not do this. What this means is that, since different teams do not operate in roughly the same way, the talent level varies quite a bit.
The intramural sports system here, if you can call it that, is made up of teams from the different constituent colleges of Oxford. The constituent colleges are the institutions that make up the University. Every student and faculty member is affiliated with one of these colleges, and there are 44 of them. This leads to huge inefficiency in the Oxford educational system, but that is a topic for another time. Since intramural sports are affiliated with a particular college, they are more institutionalized than they are back in the states.
These intramural teams host parties and events, and have well-defined team schedules. Anyone who has participated in intramural sports at the College knows that they can have little to no organization year-to-year.
Personally, I prefer the system over here since schools do not need to worry about recruiting the best athletes. When alumni give to U.K. schools, the donations really never involve athletics and the universities do not make much of a profit on athletics, so there are no incentives to stack your sports teams with players who have tremendous athletic abilities but only capacities for limited academic achievement. To be clear, this is mostly a criticism of large Div. I programs, but this sort of thing occurs at the Div. II and Div. III levels as well.
Ultimately, the system of athletics in the United Kingdom is more inclusive, less competitive, less scandal-ridden and (from where I stand) less socially and politically divisive than U.S. collegiate athletic programs.