Harry Potter and the Wizengamot of VCU

Harry Potter and the Wizengamot of VCU

Elliot Shapiro races around a field, dodging opponents while passing a ball back and forth with a teammate and moving closer and closer to the other team's goal.

He's practically flying.

Or at least as close to it as he can come. While it sounds as if Shapiro could be playing soccer, he's actually playing Quidditch — perhaps the most famous fictional game in history, immortalized by J.K. Rowling's beloved "Harry Potter" series.

Shapiro is president-elect of the Quidditch Club at Virginia Commonwealth University and a chaser on its team, the Wizengamot of VCU. (Wizengamot is the high court of wizarding law in Rowling’s Britain.)

In the Potterverse, Quidditch is played by two teams of seven who fly around on broomsticks. Chasers, of which there are three, can score by tossing the quaffle into one of the opposing team's three hoops for 10 points. A keeper acts as the goalie. Each team also has a seeker, whose job it is to catch the golden snitch, a much smaller ball with wings and a will of its own. The snitch is worth 150 points and the game ends only when it is caught.

Rounding out each team are two beaters who simultaneously try to defend their teammates from bludgers — heavy balls that fly around on their own, existing mainly to cause damage — while trying to knock the bludgers into their opponents.

Muggle (or "nonmagical" for the uninitiated) Quidditch follows the rules of the original game as faithfully as it can. The most obvious difference is that Muggles can't fly. However each player must still use a broomstick. Quaffles and bludgers have been replaced with volleyballs and dodge balls, respectively. And the golden snitch is represented by a tennis ball worth 30 points. Since the snitch is the most vital component of the game, it's attached to a person who's allowed to leave the field and fight off seekers.

Like many people of his generation, the 19-year-old Shapiro grew up with Harry Potter. But he did not know that the sport existed outside of the books and movies.  

"Before I got to college, I did not even know that people played this," he said. "It was quite a shock to me. And more than that, I'm just surprised learning how big it is."

In the past few years, Quidditch has taken off like Harry Potter on a firebolt. Associations include the International Quidditch Association (IQA) and the Virginia Quidditch League.  

Amber Cummings has been a part of Quidditch at VCU since its inception.

While Middlebury College in Vermont launched the Muggle Quidditch craze with the first collegiate team and the IQA in 2007, VCU students formed Virginia's first Quidditch team in January 2008. Then-student Heather Brown-Wright started the club. Three people, including Cummings and Brown-Wright, attended the first meeting. By the end of the semester, the club had about 10 members.

"For the first three semesters the club was very small and we didn't have any other schools to play," Cummings said. "By the end of the spring 2009 semester there were eight members that attended regularly. It was hard to keep members intrigued when we didn't have any teams to play or enough members to scrimmage against each other."

That didn't last long. By fall 2009, the club was flourishing.

"By then, Muggle Quidditch had become more popular and we gained about 15 new members," Cummings said. "That semester we played our first game against the University of Richmond team — which had just formed — and were one of the 21 teams that went to the third annual Quidditch World Cup in Vermont."

Today, the Quidditch Club at VCU has more than 30 members. Since only 21 players are allowed on the roster, the coaches determine who plays each game based on performance, improvement and attendance.

While the team trains hard, everyone — regardless of fitness or experience — is welcome.

Shapiro himself had never played a competitive sport before coming to VCU, but he was intrigued by the unique experience of playing Quidditch when he heard about it.

"What I always think is great is you've got a big spectrum of Quidditch players," he said. "Some people are really kind of dorky kids that are Harry Potter fans, playing with kids who are really athletic. That's part of what makes it unique is that it brings lots of people together."

A lot of the Wizengamot members don’t have a very thorough sports background, said head coach Scott Behler.

"Training is always interesting. Especially in the fall," he said. "We have a lot of students who come and they've never really played an organized sport before. So before we can teach them how to play Quidditch, we have to teach them sports.

"We have members of fraternities, we have all sorts of people from all walks of life, all different aspects of VCU. We have arts students. We have business majors. We have honors students and we have less-than-honors students.  But it is really sort of something that everyone can sort of agree on because I think the thing that brings everyone together is: this was our childhood. Growing up with these books and these movies, this is our generation, and if we can just get a little of a taste of that, it's really exciting for us."

Certainly, one of the best things about the club is the diverse group it has brought together.

"I like being with these people," Shapiro said. "We're a pretty close group. I wouldn't have gotten with them if it wasn't for Quidditch. Quidditch is pretty special that way."

Shapiro's hopes to one day see Quidditch become a recognized sport, perhaps in the NCAA or the Olympics.

"That’s what we’re shooting for," he said. "We’re going to make it happen.”

Does Quidditch really stand a chance of gaining the popularity needed to become an official sport?

"I know that people think it's silly," Behler said, "and to an extent it is – you're running around with a pole between your legs. But if you come out and if you give it a try, I guarantee you're going to find something that you like about it."