Muggles and magic

When you read about Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books, you think: No way. Aside from the obvious flying bit, there’s the abject brutality involved in a game played by teenagers.

During one match, Harry’s skull is split open with a bludger, and another time, he loses all the bones in his arm (though that was more than product of a misguided spell than a game consequence).

The game, played in the air on broomsticks by young wizards, male and female, is of course fantastical, with no basis in reality.

So you think, until you attend a Quidditch tournament.

A sculpture of the object of Quidditch players' desire - the Snitch.

A sculpture of the object of Quidditch players' desire - the Snitch.

There is no flying, but the intensity is, if anything, amped up in the reality that has morphed from fiction.

Today, at World Cup 9, I watched a girl, a short, slight thing, run toward the goal, Quaffle in hand. She drew back and launched the ball through the hoop – then ran full-force into the dude charging at her. The collision knocked her back onto her unprotected head and would have drawn a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty in the NFL. The young man, playing for Texas, got a talking-to, and the Ball State girl got woozily to her feet. Medics escorted her to the sideline, where there was no Madam Pomfrey to magically heal her.

There’s a time and a place to debate safety measures in Quidditch, a club sport now in its 10th year of organized play in the U.S. at more than 200 colleges and universities. This is not that time or place.

As the girl got up, the sixth-grade me who played lunchtime street basketball (no visible teachers, no discernible rules) remembered going up for a jump shot, getting shoved in the back, and flying a few feet across the gym floor before skidding to a knee-first stop. Sixth-grade me cheered lustily, if silently.

That dude could hit her as hard as he wanted. She still made the goal.

One of the many collisions that took place as players fought to score.

One of the many collisions that took place as players fought to score.

Quidditch, a mix of rugby, lacrosse, and soccer, played with a “broomstick” – in today’s case, a length of pipe – held between players’ legs, is a game Harry Potter took to when he first arrived at Hogwarts. Out of place and insecure, Harry found out he could really fly, and he found self-confidence and strength as Gryffindor’s Seeker – the player charged with capturing the Golden Snitch.

Harry Potter is not real, but alienation is. The Boy Who Lived is a fictional character, but the kids who, like him, seek their place in an outside world full of uncertainty are flesh and blood. And today, they seemed to be having a great time.

Texas and Ball State players face off in a closely contested match.

Texas and Ball State players face off in a closely contested match.

Quidditch is a coed sport, as evidenced above. Gender is a non-issue, which is a simple enough sentence and concept that is apparently very hard for a lot of modern-day people to grasp. I saw a player towering past 6-foot-4, his long black ponytail swaying as he talked animatedly to a friend, the soft angles of his face almost feminine in their beauty. I saw sunlight glinting off hair dyed cerise, cerulean and lavender. I saw a ref with a blue Mohawk.

There was a Snitch – a human in matching gold shirt and shorts – walking around with an ice pack pressed to his nose. There were pink pygmy puffs on leases. There were competitors and friends collecting trading cards of each other. There was an unsupervised Corgi running around as though it owned the place. There were teams from Maryland, Michigan, Boise State, Bowling Green, Appalachian State (the Apparators), and all points in between.

Cheering, chanting crowds root on Ball State and Texas as a Snitch is double-teamed.

Cheering, chanting crowds root on Ball State and Texas as a Snitch is double-teamed.

A big draw was the match between three-time defending national champion Texas and Ball State. The chanting crowd easily dwarfed any number of official, high-school-league-sanctioned soccer or baseball games I’ve covered. Fans groaned with every dropped pass and roared at every goal.

Behind me, a discussion started about how the increasing proliferation of Quidditch rules was damaging the “Harry Potterness” of the game. Another, full of righteous indignation, centered on those who do not consider Quidditch a sport.

“They call golf a sport,” sputtered one impassioned player.

Valid point.

A Ball State player scores a goal, flicking the Quaffle through the hoop.

A Ball State player scores a goal, flicking the Quaffle through the hoop.

In an increasingly chippy game, Ball State was whistled for a red card and was a player down as a thick, rotund Snitch dodged would-be captors, throwing a Texas player to the ground like a sack of feed. But then, a collective gasp built into a billowing wave of sound. A Ball State player had grabbed the tennis ball Velcroed to the back of the Snitch’s shorts.

The mighty Longhorns had lost. Their defeat was not widely mourned.

After Ball State beat Texas, players and fans of many teams formed a line to congratulate the combatants. 

After Ball State beat Texas, players and fans of many teams formed a line to congratulate the combatants. 

As I walked away from the pitch, I paused by a tent celebrating Quidditch’s 10 years. I noticed a box with dozens of sticky notes pinned to it. “What’s Your Quidditch Story?” blue magic marker asked in the middle.

“I play because I can,’’ Marie wrote. “I got cut from varsity sports,” said an anonymous note, and I swallowed over a rising lump in my throat (me too, dawg.) In the bottom right-hand corner, a yellow sticky note read:  “I’m trans and can feel included.”

Quidditch players share what they love about the sport.

Quidditch players share what they love about the sport.

Not everyone would get the hundreds of people milling about soccer fields in a suburban park on an April Saturday, supporting a sport that, you could argue, is not real. Some would look askance at the older lady in an ankle-length black cloak, flowers pinned to her black witch’s hat, whom I took to be Professor McGonagall. A few couples may, elsewhere, receive sidelong glances, and some participants may find it harder to laugh in different circumstances.

Minerva McGonagall proclaims: "Fifty points for Gryffindor!"

Minerva McGonagall proclaims: "Fifty points for Gryffindor!"

I myself am a Muggle through and through, but in my new house, facing an uncertain world, I’ve been rereading Harry. I started my first night here, when I slept with the lights on.

Harry Potter isn’t real. He doesn’t have to be.

As to whether Quidditch is a sport … well, we could ask the girl who got knocked flat on her back. Or we could ask the dude who ran into her, who walked off after his team’s loss with tears running unchecked down his face.

A goalie takes a breather.

The team from Washington, D.C., keeps its eyes on the ball.

The team from Washington, D.C., keeps its eyes on the ball.

Close-up Quaffle

Close-up Quaffle

A Snitch avoids a would-be capturer. 

A Snitch avoids a would-be capturer.