As freshers week comes to an end many new students will have signed up to partake in different sports and societies on offer at university, something older/ex-students encourage and is promoted as a way of making friends and putting yourself out there. However, as part of freshers’ welcoming into a lot of university sports clubs, usual events involve them being ‘initiated’, which has now commonly been disguised with the title ‘welcome drinks’. The infamous tradition of UK university initiations has rightly gained a lot of negative media attention over the years, often due to the behaviour of older students and the pressures put on first year ‘newbies’.
Typical ‘goings-on’ at these peer pressure driven events often involve students being ordered around, asked to reveal embarrassing facts about themselves and dared to perform socially unacceptable activities whilst being extremely drunk. “It’s just a joke”, “That’s what happens at uni” are some of the usual suspects voiced by those who get to sit back and watch. For a lot of older year students, it’s an opportunity for them to state their dominance in the club as well as creating and reinforcing the ‘fresher-veteran’ hierarchy.
The prevalence of lad culture and pressure to act out the extreme is predominantly seen in typically male dominant sports like rugby and football. For example, a recent incident that draws more adverse attention to these types of social events is the current investigation into the allegations made at Durham University. It has been stated that a student was urinated on as part of a rugby initiation. According to the tab, this occurred not long after older students of the club had been warned by their coaches they would be removed from the team if any bullying was to happen. This type of physical and psychological abuse creates a toxic environment where anything is deemed as acceptable, perpetuating the impression that anything goes even if it is dangerous or in some cases life threatening.
Despite being banned by many UK universities, the stopping of sport initiations is not properly monitored or enforced, and so they continue to occur in such fashion that experienced members of the student population see fit. This ‘words but no action’ approach from universities has the potential to create more problems than it solves: are students getting away with more under the radar? Are freshers scared of coming forward and exposing the truth? It’s important specific measures and proceedings are put into place to combat such conduct which is no-doubt still happening. Further, after the death of 20-year-old student Ed Farmer at a Newcastle University rugby initiation in 2016, who was pressured into drinking five times the drink-drive limit of alcohol, as written in BBC News, universities need to take more of a responsibility over what occurs at these newly-named ‘welcome drinks’.
Even though drinking amongst university students may be becoming less popular, there continues to be a pressure to drink and stigma around being sober at such social events. More support and information needs to be given to those in charge of sporting social events (the social secs) to understand and cater for different types of people, reiterating the message that it’s ok not to drink. If there is a general perception that drinking is encouraged within a sports team this can be quite off-putting for those who don’t want to be a part of the university drinking culture, which may also prevent them from socialising in the future or even playing the university sport at all.
However, to help reduce and call out cases of inappropriate behaviour at initiations there are now resources available for incidents to be reported. For example, the British University and Colleges Sport (BUCS) National Governing Body have created an online space where anyone can anonymously (or not) report an initiation. Universities UK also provides information on what responsibility universities should take in terms of their duty of care with regards to sports initiations.
Students should be made to feel properly welcomed, not just by drinks, and comfortable in a university sporting setting so that strong bonds are built right from the word go. After all, this is probably more likely to win BUCS leagues than the ‘downing’ of any pint.