The murky world of sports initiations

Imagine a university night out that involves eating a concoction of dog food, raw egg and anchovies, to the point of vomiting, before diving into a paddling pool of another person’s urine. This may sound niche, but these types of activities are the usual for university sports clubs up and down the UK during freshers’ ‘initiations’. Although officially banned at the University of Edinburgh, and condemned by the NUS as they “put students at serious risk” and promote a “binge drinking culture”, these welcome ceremonies continue at the majority of our academic institutions. I, for one, witnessed the outcomes of these during my first year at Pollock Halls, when a friend stumbled home in an orange jumpsuit, face covered in black marker pen and wearing handcuffs. This took place after their initiation into one of the hockey teams, one of many University of Edinburgh sports clubs that claim such initiations do not occur. Speaking to members suggests otherwise.

With horror stories from fellow students increasing, it is often questioned where these practices came from. It is generally assumed that these rituals of humiliation have travelled across the Atlantic, with their history rooted in fraternities at American institutions. Fraternities call these ceremonies ‘hazing’, with the word dating back to 1684 when a student at Harvard University was excluded for partaking in such rituals. Events throughout US history connected to ‘hazing’ have resulted in it being made formally illegal in numerous states. One notable example is US student William Flowers, who was attempting to become a member of a fraternity in a ‘hazing’ ceremony in 1974 when he had to dig a deep hole in sand, and the walls collapsed, burying Flowers and causing his death. A statue of Flowers now stands in New York City.

Numerous sports teams from Edinburgh were reluctant to speak about events held during the first couple of weeks to ‘welcome’ freshers, yet some members appeared genuinely against these rituals. Noah Brown, current publicity officer for Shinty club, claimed that, “We have no initiation. Freshers are invited to join the team at our local pub. This is a friendly affair where we encourage the team to get to know the new players”. Similarly, a member of Hare and Hounds running club dismissed the need for such activities, claiming, “We’re a very welcoming club, we don’t have trials or initiations”. While these clubs don’t see a need to prove yourself in the first week, Noah Brown from the Shinty Club raised an interesting point, suggesting, “I think it’s very easy for bigger sports like rugby to go down this road of initiations when they get very high numbers and are not a minority sport”. Anyone who has seen the tweed jackets of the Rugby Club members hanging around George Street into the late hours of a Wednesday evening may be more accepting that these older and larger sports clubs have numerous traditions attached to their name.

A source, who requested to be kept anonymous, backed this up with the tale of the 2013 University of Edinburgh Men’s Rugby initiation, which included new members being taken on a trip to Portobello. Upon arrival they were told to strip, and after a naked swim in the sea returned to find the older members of the club had got a bus back to campus with all their clothing, leaving them undressed and abandoned. Other sources suggest that the larger, well-known sports clubs are more likely to have activities for freshers to undertake, with current Cricket Club President Rex Hugill stating, “We have no initiation event, but we do hold a social where new male members earn their club ties. Exactly how they do this varies, but in general it is a combination of a drinking challenge and a physical challenge. For example, one may have to drink a pint through a straw whilst doing a plank, or do a Revolutions chilli shot stick with a burpee in between each shot.”

Arguably the negative portrayal of initiation could be exaggerated, as there is always an element of student choice. This is reflected in Shinty Club’s welcome drinks, with Noah Brown claiming, “I am myself teetotal, which is not a problem with the other players.” Similarly, the university Cricket Club aims to welcome all members regardless of drinking ability, with Hugill, the President, claiming, “We try to tailor the challenge depending on the member. If someone is uncomfortable with the drinking aspect, which various members have been, then perhaps the physical part will be made tougher.” Those who defend initiation rituals claim that it strengthens team bonding, a view supported by psychologist Robert Cialdini who researched ‘hazing’ in US fraternities. He cited a 1959 study in which researchers observed that “persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort”.

Most of the initiations mentioned have been male-oriented, and it is worth noting that upon researching this topic, it appears that women’s club initiations tend to be less outrageous. An anonymous student who is a member of a female sports team on campus claimed that the lack of “boy influence”, resulted in “no overly laddish behaviour” during initiation, making it a more enjoyable experience. However, she claimed, “the drinking culture is huge”, and ‘‘if you throw up or do anything embarrassing, it’s almost praised”. The gender divide at initiations was prominent at Northumbria University men’s rugby initiation, at which a new student told of how members were “ordered to try and get with passing girls”.

Despite members of sporting clubs defending these activities as old-fashioned fun, there are cases in which initiation has gone horribly wrong. Some worth noting include a new student at the Kappa Alpha fraternity who was given a ‘wedgie’ that was so severe, doctors later removed a testicle, whilst 19-year-old John Paul Boldrick from the University of Virginia ended up in intensive care after having to drink a whole bottle of soy sauce, with high sodium levels resulting in a seizure. Evidently the most tragic case is that of 18 year old Exeter student Gavin Britton, who died from alcohol poisoning after a ‘pub golf’ initiation.

With such stories, it is worth considering whether the UK government is doing enough to stop these incidents, or whether we should follow in the footsteps of the US and regard all such activities as illegal. University-level bans do not appear to be working effectively, and numerous sports members on campus are uncomfortable with initation.

Hugill stated, “I think that initiations exist as a way for different sports teams to prove their popularity and status”, yet “those clubs that do not operate them see them as the exact opposite, something to be derided”.

He claimed that, “In reality, initiations should exist in order to get to know new members, but the idea that this can only be founded on someone’s ability to drink or embarrass themselves seems sad and reductive.”

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