KAPALKO: Quidditch takes college campuses by storm

Jamie Kapalko

The big open field is the center of intramural sports life at any college. Four bases and a couple of old bats give you softball. Set up some cones, and you have flag football; drag out some portable goals, and you’re ready for soccer.

But two weeks ago at eight campuses across the Northeast, from Dartmouth to Wesleyan to Penn, the big open field hosted a new sport – one that’s growing fast, spreading to nearly 80 schools since it began at Middlebury College in 2005. Its extramural championship in the fall drew a crowd of curious students and local families who surrounded the field. T-shirts, programs and posters were sold, commentary was blasted over speakers and there was live music between games.

Instead of cones or bases, the field is set up with six large gold hoops (three at each end) held by poles a few feet off the ground. Players wear Under Armour and sweatpants, like every other intramural athlete, but they also wear goggles and capes. Yes, capes.

Oh, yeah. And they play with brooms between their legs.

The sport is Muggle Quidditch, adapted from the wizard game played in the “Harry Potter” books. The rules are slightly different from those used at Hogwarts, owing to players’ inability to fly, but it’s the closest Potter fans can get to living in the books.

Each team has seven players. Three Chasers pass a volleyball around (partially-deflated because with a hand on the broom, players only have one hand free to hold it) and try to throw it through one of the other team’s hoops. A goal is worth 10 points. The Keeper is like the goalie, defending the hoops from the Chasers. Two Beaters use Bludgers (dodgeballs) to peg the other team’s players; when hit with a Bludger, a player must drop any ball he or she is holding and run back to the team’s line of hoops before continuing to play. Finally, the Seeker’s responsibility is to catch the Snitch. Catching the Snitch scores 50 points and ends the game.

In the books, the Snitch is a tiny gold, winged ball that flits quickly around the field. It often disappears for long stretches of time, and when it resurfaces, the Seekers pursue it desperately (it’s worth a massive 150 points in the books).

Muggle Quidditch replaces the winged gold ball with a fleet-footed long-distance runner dressed entirely in yellow. This human Snitch leaves the field and runs around campus, returning every 10 minutes until he or she is caught. To catch the Snitch, a Seeker must grab a ball in a sock that hangs from the back of the Snitch’s shorts.

The game originated at Middlebury and has done most of its development at the school in Vermont, which established the Intercollegiate Quidditch Association to spread a standardized set of rules. With over 300 students signed up to participate, it is one of the largest clubs on campus.

The games that took place throughout the Northeast two weeks ago were sponsored by the Middlebury Quidditch program. Twenty-five students hit the road, taking four vans to eight schools with the hopes of stirring up interest in the sport. CBS, ESPN and MTV all sent film crews and did features, giving the games a national audience.

Some students at schools with Quidditch teams roll their eyes. Xander Manshel, one of the game’s founders, told USA Today that it had a “nerd stigma” at the beginning. And, sure, it may have stemmed from a desire to bring a series of books to life. But one thing the books did was blur the line between nerdy and cool, especially for people who were 8-12 when the first book came out and 18-22 when the last one did.

“Our generation grew up with Harry Potter, so it’s something we’ve always been connected to,” one player told MTV.

But that doesn’t mean that college Quidditch players have to be fans of the books.

“Once people saw it wasn’t just a fantasy game, [it’s] very athletic, it caught on,” Manshel said.

It may be absolutely ridiculous, but it’s still a sport. There’s a whole lot of running, throwing, diving and occasionally wrestling. There’s skill and strategy. And above all, there’s something that’s integral to intramurals: fun.

“A lot of people take life a little too seriously and forget about the simple pleasures of running around outside playing with a ball,” one player remarked.

Quidditch has sparked community interest, drawing parents and children to watch. It brings in professors who like the books and the game and want to participate. Those who play are determined to expand it to a bigger scale. It’s only going up from here.

“There’s something very free about running around with a cape on, with a broom between your legs,” said Alex Benepe, president of the IQA. “It’s a declaration, like, ‘I don’t care if I look silly. I’m having a great time.'”

And that is a magical thing.