Oligarchy and imperfect democracy: devaluing the Cambridge Blue

TOM BENNETT calls for changes to the way blues committees are run.

blazer Blue blues committees bow tie cambridge blue Hawks ospreys Sport Tab Tom Bennett women's blues committee

Since the 1880s, if not earlier, the Cambridge Blue has been regarded as the highest recognition a Cambridge sportsman or woman can receive. Those who hold a blue are considered the university’s sporting elite and have the right to wear the ‘blues bow-tie’ and the iconic ‘blue blazer’.

It is an award which recognises sporting excellence and dedication. The holder of a blue is generally expected to excel not just within the university itself but to approach national if not international standard. A small number of sports (the list differs between men and women) in Cambridge hold unconditional full blue status meaning that the entire Varsity match team will be granted a full blue, while others such as swimming have certain set standards they must reach in order to receive a full blue.

In the category below the full blue sports there are the discretionary full blue sports whose members receive a half blue for competing in a varsity match but individuals must present personal applications to the blues committee if they feel they deserve to be granted a full blue.

There are two distinct blues committees, one for sportsmen and one for sportswomen, and they are governed in very different manners. The men’s committee is constituted by one representative of each of the full blue sports while the boat club provide two representatives. They have no published constitution, publish no minutes of their meetings and the make-up of the committee has not changed since 1977 when Cross Country was accepted into their ranks.Having attained full blue status, no sport in the last half a century at least has been downgraded.

The women’s committee on the other hand is far more representative with all full and half blue sport clubs allowed voting rights; their constitution lays out criteria clubs must meet in order to justify their award of a blue and requires a review of the status of voting members every three years.

The Blue's Blazer

Nice blazer, not so sure about the shirt

There are strengths, very different strengths, to both committees. The primary strength of the men’s committee is how tightly they guard the issuing of blues. Individuals who have served on the committee, in private, detail the very serious manner in which applications by members of discretionary full blue sports are considered. Details on application forms are looked up and checked while serious and forceful debate runs through the meeting. There is no question of an applicant fluffing up an application and cheating their way to a full blue. This retains the value of the blue; it actually means something to receive one having convinced a notoriously harsh committee of your worth as a sportsman.

The women’s committee is representative and open. The regular review of a sport’s status as well as the more widely granted voting rights ought to guarantee that a sport has a certain status because of that club’s performance and that individuals are elected as full blues on the basis of their achievements, regardless of the sport within which these achievements were made. Everything seems fair.

However, there are problems with both. The main problem with the men’s committee is that while fastidiously guarding the status of the blue from all but the best applicants out of the ranks of the discretionary sports, there is potential for them to allow a number of sub-par sportsmen into the ranks of the elite without any debate.

An interesting example of this is the football club. While right now, playing in the top BUCS division and dominating Varsity encounters, they deserve full blue status, just four years ago they were playing in BUCS midlands division 2B. There were not 11 players who would have matched up to the standards required of the members of some discretionary sports teams, yet they got their full blue. University sports clubs operate in a cyclical manner, they get good intakes and bad intakes and the majority are unable to maintain consistently high standards. From an external position it seems extremely unlikely the full blue sports ever undergo status reviews; those sports are at the top and resultantly not at all interested in changing the status quo. As a result individuals who don’t meet standards traditionally expected of full blues are receiving them and subsequently the blue is being devalued.

Blues Assemble!

Blues Assemble!

The men’s committee is also in danger of losing control of the blue. A common gripe among discretionary applicants is that they are not notified of the results of their application. Whereas the women’s committee provide certificates for all successful applicants, men are required to follow the tedious course of chasing the committee with numerous emails in order to extract a response and in a disturbing number of cases never receive one. What this results in is applicants assuming they have been successful. Having spoken to an admittedly small number of applicants, all have assumed full blue status on failing to receive clarification and subsequently are never challenged on the matter. They buy the blue blazer and blue bow-tie, and receive the prestige that comes with full blue status when in some cases it has never been awarded. In not meeting the standards yet still labelling themselves a blue they project to their peers and others a less strenuous concept of a blue and thus lessen the recognition those who have earned it rightfully deserve.

The lack of any mechanism of notification is remarkable and must be seen to result from the limited nature of the committee. The sports that populate the committee all receive full blues without debate – for their representatives this is not an issue and so no alterations are made especially since there is no real forum for complaint by the sports affected. While the serious nature of their discussions is theoretically guarding the blue, their failure to appreciate this issue threatens to downgrade the status of a full blue to anyone who has the balls to buy a blazer or bow-tie.

A lengthy tradition is at stake.

A lengthy tradition is at stake.

This being said, the solution is not to turn to the system utilised by the women’s committee. The issue with the women’s committee comes from just how representative it is. By giving voting rights to half blue sports as well, the committee meeting is turned into something more of an assembly. In a meeting of 30 people a proper discussion is all but impossible without proper mechanisms laid out for debate, especially as at least a certain number of those who sit on the committee regard it as a burden more than anything. Minutes regularly record absences of upwards of 5 sports while there is some suggestion that many approach it with the attitude of getting it over with as soon as possible. Unanimous voting without much debate noted by individuals who have sat on the committee illustrates this point. The size of the body waters down the responsibility felt by each member.  It seems likely votes are cast far more lightly than in the men’s committee and it is understandable that standards may slip.

The blue is a key element of Cambridge history and tradition. It is the responsibility of those sitting on the blues committees to protect its value. The committees as they stand do have strengths, and this article is by no means seeking to attribute personal responsibility for their failings to the individuals who are currently running them. The issues are structural and the result of long term apathy regarding reform. A hybrid format is required. Blues committees should be limited to full blue sports only to allow for serious discussion and an appreciation of the importance of the blue must be instilled, but they must also be transparent. Minutes must be provided, a constitution with criteria must be published and reviews of  full blue status must be completed with some regularity. I am not a full blue, but I believe it is an extremely important part of Cambridge sport. It is something that correctly recognises the unique achievement of balancing the demands of a Cambridge degree with high level sporting achievement. The blue has not yet been devalued as a concept but unless changes are made that may happen in the not too distant future.