The culture of initiations at the University of Edinburgh

“To be in the club you have to initiate”; “We don’t believe in initiations”. Two conflicting statements about sports initiations at a University of Edinburgh’s men’s sports team, the first a player’s testimonial and the latter from a club’s spokesperson. Initiations, also known as ‘hazing’, at university sports clubs are seldom far from the headlines — last November, The Times reported rugby freshers at the University of Manchester were forced to ‘apple-bob’ for rats in cider. 

The University of Edinburgh has, however, been indicted only once by the popular press, with The Telegraph presenting an abstract account of a men’s sports initiation involving playing a game naked in the city centre with a live chicken as a ball four years ago. The current status of sports initiations at Edinburgh has generally remained unannounced — an unknown to which many freshers either fall victim or are pleasantly surprised by. 

A culture enshrined in exclusivity, paired with the fact that press for sports initiations is nearly always negative has generated a ‘no-blabbing’ policy from those clubs with the most extreme practices. In Edinburgh, such secrecy serves to do more than protect the club’s reputation and keep potential members from being scared off — initiations are staunchly forbidden by the Edinburgh University Sports Union, the Alcohol and Initiations policy on their website stating that “Initiations are not permitted by any SU [Sports Union] Club”.

For these reasons, the line taken on initiations by club spokespersons is unanimous: we do not do them. The unofficial line begs to differ. The Student, through a series of interviews, has acquired insights into the varied reality of sports initiations at Edinburgh.

The landscape of initiations at Edinburgh is shaped by a variety of factors: whether or not it is a men’s or women’s team, singles or team sport, and the culture of the sport itself. Consequently not all sports initiations at Edinburgh are booze-fuelled horror stories of degradation and humiliation — ‘initiation’ has become a dirty word, a reputation not necessarily deserved by all. Certain tropes are shared by nearly all sports initiations. The principle of each remains the same; a way to consolidate players into the club. Activities, drinking, embarrassment and a fresher-senior dynamic are practically universal. What distinguishes a hearty sports social from a night of peer pressure and trauma is the extremes to which these themes are taken. In theory, all initiations serve the purpose of uniting new and returning players through a shared experience. Particularly in team sports, the role that an initiation plays is primarily that of team-building. For different teams this process varies dramatically. 

For some teams it is an important calendar event of challenges and sociability. For established clubs it is a gauntlet that one must run to maintain a ‘initiation’ and command commitment. This mentality defines the type of events that occur during an initiation, though all follow a similar structure of a series of challenges. 

Challenges undertaken by clubs have included a human wheelbarrow race, with forfeits of eating a raw egg. For others, challenges become orders issued by aggressive senior members to heavily inebriated freshers. Refusal means failure to be initiated and social exclusion within the club.

The fresher-senior relationship is fairly commonplace across teams. The nature of this dynamic also varies from club to club. In some instances this is simply two differently themed costumes designed to amicably embarrass initiates. More established, traditional clubs have a culture of ‘fresher-bashing’, a hierarchical power-dynamic between those who have and have not been initiated, that compels new players to obey orders. This mentality is cyclical in nature. Those being initiated can legitimise their experience through the promised ‘reward’ of getting to ‘watch people do what you did for the next three and a half years’ in a seemingly sadistic loop not unlike the victim-bully cycle.

This ‘bonding by trial’ initiation style is often framed as a necessity for sporting success, particularly in what are seen as the more ‘macho’ sports. However, this perception of pronounced machoism and locker room culture has largely been disproved by sports psychologists. 

England’s success in this summer’s football World Cup has been largely attributed to the team psychologist Pippa Grange, who replaced traditional ideas of locker room conduct with openness and intimacy. It is not uncommon for players to join a university sports team, undergo the initiation but drop out later due to the tone of the club established by the initiation. Grange is an example of how this does not have to be the case.

The strong association that many sports have with such initiations is turning away many players from even considering competing at the university level. Last October, Steve Grainger, the development director of the Rugby Football Union, said that the prevalence of initiations is “changing people’s perception of the game”. The type of initiation a club performs is indicative of the club’s culture itself — it is not the principle of the event that is necessarily problematic, but the mentality that fosters it.

This culture is often bound up in tradition, particularly relating to gender and the history of the sport. Often it is the ‘boarding school sports’ such as rugby and hockey that host the most demanding initiations. Likewise, women’s sports, having been established more recently are usually more progressive in their approach to initiations, although this difference may simply be eating baby food rather than vomit.

Initiations are most prominently criticised for being unsafe, primarily due to excess alcohol consumption. In 2006, student Gavin Britton died of alcohol poisoning at a University of Exeter golf initiation, and every year students across the country have to have their stomachs pumped. Almost all initiations at Edinburgh hold drinking at their core, as is the case for almost all other types of socialising at university.

Last year, a first year was hospitalised after being found passed out in the road by a police officer, having been abandoned by his team following an order to drink excessively. He says he could have been hit by a car and killed. A further source stated that during one initiation, bin-bag wearing freshers raced to finish bottles of lambrini taped to their hands, their bin-bag outfits acting as bibs for their vomit. Upon climbing Arthur’s Seat blindfolded, wearing only a swimming costume, further orders given included more drinking, physical exertion and consumption of vomit. 

On another occasion, a friend of this source was discovered outside his accommodation showing early stages of hypothermia. Whilst many an initiation goes ahead with plentiful drinking and no such issues, the question of with whom responsibility lies when it comes to establishing a safe yet social balance is key. Said fresher attributes his extreme inebriation not to his teammates themselves, but to his own preconceptions of owing the team and having to impress them. In either case, an expectation was established and a group psychology distorted his decision-making. He believes that “an initiation is always dangerous”.

Conversely, many initiates maintain that with responsible seniors orchestrating the event a balance can be struck in regard to safe alcohol consumption. One player reports that their team, although encouraging drinking via challenges and forfeits, takes a progressive stance towards alcohol safety, ensuring that the evening is a night to be remembered, not one that cannot be. Even a player whose initiation consisted of perpetually throwing up from alcohol poisoning maintains that, due to the care of seniors, a balance was well struck. Risk lies in the normality of this extreme consumption, especially for new students. Freshers may have limited experience with alcohol or varying tolerances unknown to instructive seniors. This naïvety paired with a desire to please makes the role of the ‘responsible’ senior a potentially life-threatening task, with little to no accommodation made for non-drinking students.

Despite being forbidden by Sports Union policy, initiations will continue to go on at Edinburgh as long as there are clubs to host them. Yet one may question the Edinburgh University Sports Union’s phrasing of such a stark ban. How does one differentiate a team’s introductory social from a night of alcohol abuse and degradation? 

The responsibility lies with teams to consider what kind of environment they want to offer prospective players, even if that means renouncing age-old traditions. The principle of an initiation is to unite, and when one does so it is a success. However, what may be seen as a core necessity may in fact be damaging to not only the club itself, but the entire culture of the sport.

Image: Ben_Kerckx via Pixabay

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