Initiation, but by any other name?
by Katie Pavid & Mei Leng Yew. Additional reporting by Alex Slotwinski
Four years ago Team Durham banned initiations for new freshers, but in some sports clubs, the controversial welcome still happens.
Now, however, initiations are called “welcome drinks” or something similar. Palatinate canvassed popular opinion around Durham to find out how much initiations had evolved and how students felt about them.
Initiations have sporadically made headlines over the years. Out-of-control drinking led to an Exeter fresher’s death in 2006 during a golf initiation, and videos emerged that “shocked” staff at the University of Gloucestershire after students were filmed in 2008 lined up against a wall with bags over their heads, and a hockey player reported being forced “to go to the toilet in a bucket in a dark basement, which was full of other people’s urine.”
In 2007, Team Durham laid out a code of conduct for any sports club planning welcome drinks for their new members. Quentin Sloper, Assistant Director of Student Sport at Durham University, said: “We have a definitive stance on initiations and clubs’ socials as a whole, which we publicise on the Team Durham website under ‘code of conduct’.
“The code was formally introduced three years ago but we have worked with clubs to ensure that social events are managed appropriately for a number of years.”
The code as it stands bans “club initiations,” excessive alcohol consumption by clubs or individuals during a club social or night out resulting in inappropriate behaviour, and any form of illegal or dangerous behaviour by clubs or individuals during a club social or night out.
The number of incidents resulting from excessive alcohol consumption drinking has decreased a large amount in recent years, a fact which is probably down to the crackdown by Team Durham. Many people Palatinate spoke to reported thoroughly positive experiences of welcome drinks and nights out which were arranged while they were in their first year.
Most socials for first years now include themed fancy dress and various challenges, some of which involve food, and some alcohol. Some involve very few clothes at all, as many will have seen lines of males flying past them, some dressed only in boxers, some in silver hotpants or thongs and some in their birthday suits.
A member of one hill college girls’ club said: “The theme was Hugh Hefner and the Bunny Girls. We had to eat a gherkin, drink sambuca and do a boat race (a drinking game). I definitely didn’t have a negative experience at all, it was a good group of people.”
Likewise, a member of a Team Durham mens’ club told us, “The boys all had to dress as nuns, and do challenges like press ups, a boat race and drinking a pint from off the floor.”
A Hill college footballer recalled, “For our ‘initiations’ we had to drink a glass of red wine using a tampon, eat food out of a nappy and drink a pint of half-beer, half-SMA formula milk. For captains’ initiations last year, we each had to a do a dirty pint chosen by the club captain with all manner of items in. The club captain had to do a dirty pitcher, which cost around £30 with all the alcohol and random items in there. Marmite, sweetcorn, crisps, cinnamon, chilli powder to name a few.”
These kinds of challenges are seen by most as harmless fun, and they usually are. A friendly atmosphere and some dutch courage can encourage team bonding, and ultimately make for better sportsmanship and victory on the court or pitch.
However, the first social can still be an intimidating time for nervous freshers, as competitive drinking is rife and some nights out have been known to end in injury, criminal activity and police investigations. Some clubs which are renowned for heavy alcohol consumption can lose members as potential players want to avoid the embarrassment of drinking challenges.
One student from a Bailey college mixed club said: “I know an England Under-21 rugby player who played for his local club rather than his university team purely because their focus was too much on social life rather than playing sport.
“There are plenty of drinking clubs in and around Durham so arguably sports teams should be there to play sport and drinking clubs should be there to do silly things.”
A Team Durham athlete described her first social: “We had to dress up as purple fairies and play Never Have I Have Ever. Everyone had to say the dirtiest thing they had ever done, it had to be sexual and you had to say.
“It was good fun, but at the same time some of us were thinking, why do we have to do this? How is this relevant – it’s got nothing to do with us having fun as sportswomen.”
However, one third year highlighted the benefits of welcome drinks which included heavy drinking: “I was recently in my bar for the college rugby “initiation” and true, freshers were pressured into drinking; true, they were rowdy and they changed the atmosphere in the bar, but how does this differ from a normal “social”? During the course of the night it became apparent that several of the senior rugby players, the third and fourth years, weren’t drinking as much as usual and when a fresher appeared from the toilet looking much worse for wear, a senior made sure he got home ok.
“One of the main alcohol awareness campaigns blares out the slogan “KNOW YOUR LIMITS” but how is one meant to know their limits if they cannot find them in a relatively safe environment in which to test them? Personally I’m happy that initiations are still there because I’d much rather make a complete idiot of myself when I know that some people there are more sober, and there will be someone to carry me home.”
The fact does remain that any other social of the year is almost equally as likely to have negative consequences as freshers’ ‘welcome drinks’. This term alone, three members of one Bailey college are facing either a ban on entering their college bar or a university investigation because of incidents which occurred on a drunken night out.
Quentin Sloper recognised that drinking plays a large part of student life: “Social events can be great fun and are, without question, part of the culture of sport and the culture of student life as a whole. We have been keen to recognise that social events do have a role to play but, at the same time, we have been clear that forcing students to do things that they do not want to do, such as drinking excessively and behaving in any form of anti-social manner, has no place within Durham University Sport.
“Thankfully the number of incidents we have to deal with is extremely small and we believe that this is, to some extent at least, a consequence of the fact that we spend a lot of time working with clubs to emphasise the importance of managing social occasions appropriately, and we will continue to do so.”
On the whole, club initiations are enjoyable experiences and a fast way for a group of strangers to get to know each other and gel as a team before they are placed on a pitch or a field together. What’s more, with Team Durham’s official ban on initiations, the welcome events that have evolved are more similar to socials than to the frat-house antics sometimes seen in American movies.
As one third year asked, “Why does “initiation” seem such a dirty word, whereas “a social” is something that is smiled upon?”