Uniball – The Power and the Politics

By Pete Laird

You’ll remember back in May when Double Coverage ran an article on the increasing number of high profile Head Coaches stepping down at their respective programmes.

Since then the list of departures has grown with Heriot-Watts Don Edmonston and this month, Northumbria’s Ben Johnson.

And when you see Social media posts like this, from three-time National Champion Wayne Hill, it is evident there are some endemic problems with student American Football.

Wayne Hill

Assessing the health of Uniball is immensely difficult to do as it shows all sorts of conflicting signals:

  • A three tier league with 84 teams, yet two have already gone under this pre-season with another two or three rumoured to be on the tipping point.
  • A successful GB National programme with 2 victories under its belt, only to have support pulled from under it on the eve of the World Championship.

So how can Uniball, the very hotbed of UK Gridiron, have so many issues?

To understand the problem you first have to understand the background of university sport, its Byzantine structure, its stakeholders, and some very key principles.


The University

Principle 1: University Sport is not controlled by the Universities.

Don’t misunderstand, universities love the publicity and the prestige a successful sports team or athlete brings. With increasing competition for students and a clamour for their fees, universities at the top end of the university league tables, love a winner, and will throw money, resources, and in some cases scholarships, at successful programmes in any sport.  But ultimately the running and administration of student sport is handed over to the students themselves via BUCS. After all, the principle of a university is to further your education…


BUCS (British Universities & College Sport)

Prior to BUCS recognition in 2013, the university game was governed by its member clubs through BUAFL, although uniball dates as far back as 1985. The move to BUCS was seen as an opportunity for the student game to gain recognition by universities and to open up an opportunity for increased funding for the sport.

BUCS, as an organisation, is responsible for organising more than 50 inter-university sports within the UK and sends representative teams, in a list of approved or prioritised sports, to the World University Championships and the World University Games. There are over 170 member universities and colleges in the UK, and over 4,800 team’s participants. Registered teams, and competing universities all pay a registration fee to be a part of BUCS and their competitions. There are 36 members of staff at BUCS and it boasted an annual income in the region of £3.3M in 2015. The sports are as diverse as the newly created ‘Super Rugby’, to Snow sports and Horse Riding with Quidditch knocking on the door for recognition in 2018.

The underpinning vision for BUCS is ‘to enhance the student experience through sport’. You’ll note the absence of words like ‘elite’ or ‘performance’ in the statement. And it’s this tone of ‘sport for all’ ethos that begins to cause some of the conflict with the American Football’s community.

Principle 2: The people running university sport aren’t in it to win it.


SAG – Sports Advisory Group

It would be fair to say that BUCS understanding of what it was taking on when it incorporated American Football into its competitions was fairly limited. In order to try and understand the sport and create a dialogue with the governing body, they created a Sports Advisory Group (SAG) who would make recommendations on league structure and advise on, amongst other things, criteria for admission. This year saw the adoption of a minimum requirement of three Level 1 coaches per competing university and incorporating minimum standards for competition that are already in the BAFA rule book.

Nottingham University’s Phil Wood held the chair previously, with Russ Hewitt representing BAFA, Richard Vernon of BAFRA, with BUCS bigwigs Paul O’Leary (BUCS Sports Manager) and Simon Cruise (BUCS Competitions Co-Ordinator) in attendance. The SAG have four meetings a year. Last year Dale Bottomley and Richard Batty also joined Jon Holloway the student rep.

The meetings review on-going issues with the competitions, however these boards are merely ‘advisory’.

Principle 3: Make no mistake, uniball is a BUCS competition. Their ball, their rules. And it’s certainly not BAFA’s.

BUCS can, and has, chosen a different path in its decision making. Advice on weak teams not being suitable for entry to the leagues is often ignored leading to late pull outs from the league at the expense of lost fixtures to other programmes.

This has also meant a variety of incidents in the last few years, where BAFA rules have been broken (suspended players continuing to play, lack of goal posts, late cancelations) with little or no enforcement, and even rule changes made by the SAG once the season was already underway.

Principle 4: BUCS does not like to upset its member universities.


Student Unions/Athletics Associations

Each university team requires its Student Union/Association and in turn, it’s Sport Union/Athletic associations (they have many names across the country), to enter the member clubs into the BUCS competition every year.

The biggest contradiction in Student associations is that they are independent organisations who choose how to allocate resources and spending. That money is allocated from a central pot direct from the university themselves.

Student Unions are governed by a collection of Sabbatical Officers (enrolled students taking a paid year to represent the student body in a variety of roles such as Welfare, Sports, Disability & Inclusion, LGBT, etc., the number and role dependant on the size of the university) and a collection of more experienced paid employees who perform the day to day tasks of student representation.

Without wishing to generalise, as there are many excellent sabbaticals out there, the Sports Sabbaticals traditionally have been elected from the student body in hideously low turn outs (10% is considered a success) and are often won on the back of popularity rather than policy (‘Vote for me and I guarantee better student nights out!’). The inherent grievance against any incoming Sab is that ‘Quentin from La-Crosse will give all the money to La-Crosse’.

Whilst their have undoubtedly been incidents of favouritism and collusion, SU funding is often much more barren and systematic than that. Teams at most universities are essentially self-funded which makes fund raising paramount for an expensive sport like American Football where teams are talking double decker’s not mini-buses. But the rules on fund-raising are restrictive, tied as they are to the charitable status of the Student Association and the fact that member teams do not stand alone. Just ask any University American Football team who has been tied into their Sports Unions kit deal from Surridge or Rhino.

Principle 5: The people running the Sports Union have no concept of American Football and don’t really care either.

The Sports President represents ALL the sports at their member institutions and American Footballs weekly issues of fixtures, transportation, officials, medical cover, facilities, coach accreditation, player registration, etc. are just one of the many sports that need dealt with and are therefore often left to wait in line.

Any British uniball coach could give you a list of anecdotes they have encountered on an annual basis as an incoming sabbatical takes the reigns.

My personal favourite: I was once offered Rugby Balls as a cheaper alternative to play with… This annual battle of wits can also be mirrored by an element of ego and self-importance amongst Football Coaches that leads to poisonous relationships developing between team-coach-and student associations.


Sports Departments

The Sports Departments control the facilities and allocate time slots to the Sports Unions around teaching timetables and external lets. Of course some universities facilities are more extensive than others which means American Football is often left to external lets at unpopular times and locations. Case in point: National Champions Stirling train at 6am, and the Edinburgh Predators had a fixture bumped from their own field this season to make way for a sub-let from the Heriot-Watt team!

Principle 6: American Football is far down the pecking order for accessing facilities.

Whilst most Sports Departments work in partnership with the Sports Unions, in some universities (and in increasing numbers) they have taken over control of certain sports through central funding from the university. This reflects the growing desire for success by the university and a need for control over its funding. This has traditionally been the way in Rowing and Athletics at the older universities.

As the trend for sporting success continues more teams have also moved down the scholarship route where we see international scholarships littering the Premier and some Division 1 programmes and expenses and stipends offered to the coaches.

Principle 7: If you take the money, you answer for your results.  

With limited spaces at the top table (one up-one down to the Premier North & South) and only one trophy to play for, that’s a lot of pressure to succeed on voluntary coaches.

And if the Sports Department changes priorities, or the University changes its ethos, your resources can be pulled from you as quickly as they were given (see Northumbria).


Club Committee’s

If the yearly frustration of dealing with an incoming sabbatical can be a struggle, then an incoming club committee can be even more traumatic. Teams in the BUCS structure, are student teams, managed by students and run for students.

An AGM will see students elected to posts where they may have little or no experience where they either sink or swim (or disappear altogether: I once had a club treasurer disappear to Florida with a years’ worth of player memberships).

Every year, experienced coaches have been ousted by incoming committees who wish to go in a ‘different direction’. Any attempts to assist committees or manage the team by the Head Coach is also resisted by the Student Unions, to the point where some won’t even talk to the volunteer coaches.

Principle 8:  There is no stability. Everything starts anew every season.


Uniball – A lifestyle choice!

The restrictions related to uniball can be grinding, anachronistic, and demotivating to coaches. The growth and development of a true university program is a constant battle against an army of well-meaning volunteers, intransigent officials, restrictive policies and multiple layers of governance. When put alongside the recruitment and management of student athletes, who have so many other distractions of a student lifestyle, then you can see how the pressure can begin to build.

A uniball Head Coach effectively loses a third of their playing personnel on an annual basis and has to begin afresh every year whilst keeping returners engaged and involved. The coaches at student level will spend as much time teaching life skills as playbook X’s and O’s and have to provide guidance, mentorship, and discipline when required on a daily basis.

Which brings us back to where we started. The high attrition rate amongst uniball coaches can in part be explained to these pressures and demands for which there are little or no extrinsic rewards. This has led to burn out, fatigue, and frustration from some of our highest profile coaches. Yet for every big name stepping down, we often see another returning to start all over again in pastures new.  Which begs the obvious question, why get involved in uniball? To paraphrase Wayne Hill above: It’s all about the players and it’s all about the game.