Initiations continue to damage university sporting culture


‘Initiation’. The word is smeared with mystery. Look back far enough in its history and you’ll find a Latin noun, ‘initiātiō’, which means ‘participation in secret rites’. I wonder if the scribe who first penned the term centuries ago considered being urinated on as part of the definition. 

Yes, urinated on: that was allegedly the uncomfortable fate of a fresher recently, the latest victim in a high-profile headline about a university sporting initiation. It happened within the hygienic quarters of Durham’s very own rugby club, with one member describing the act as “violently condescending”.

Condescending indeed, but this case is quite mild compared to ones from years gone by. Naked rugby with a live chicken as the ball in Edinburgh city centre. Six University of Gloucestershire students having sex on a bus in front of minors. A Surrey student shot in the head with a staple gun. Take your pick.

Or how about the litany of students who have died in recent years from alcohol poisoning because of reckless initiations? 

For sure, nobody intends things to get so out of hand, but there is always a subtext festering behind these accidents. They’re indicative of a culture contaminated with rowdiness, one which prioritises indulging in its own mindless traditions instead of achieving the welfare of its members. It’s a culture that has taken a minority of student clubs into its grip over a long period of time. It’s a culture which claims to be adults having a good time when, deep down, it’s often young people putting on a brave face.

They’re indicative of a culture contaminated with rowdiness, one which prioritises indulging in its own mindless traditions

Far from making newcomers feel welcome, brutal initiations push people away from sport. In 2017, the Rugby Football Union announced its suspicions that initiations were partly to blame for 10,000 school leavers throwing in the towel with the sport. A Palatinate report in 2018 found that one fresher nearly left Durham University altogether before term had even begun because of abusive pre-season behaviour. 

Dealing with the situation is easier said than done because these events are organised without the knowledge of staff. Team Durham banned initiations in 2007 and has a set of punishments to react to extreme misbehaviour, but the staff are powerless to physically prevent bullying on a wild night out – short of infiltrating every social gathering with fake moustaches and standing on guard.

For all the policies University officials put in place, it’s on us students to bring about a culture change. We need to learn from and guide each other. Most student groups have great socials together, where revellers still drink lots of alcohol but are considerate enough to not forcefully shave somebody’s head. It’s time the rest followed suit. 

The pro-initiation crowd will invariably argue that these things aren’t as bad as they seem, that they take place with the consent of their participants, but what sort of consent is it? Consent under pressure of social and sporting exclusion? Consent when you’re drunk and the whole team is forcing you into something?

Even if everybody does freely consent, we need to think about the sort of people initiations can make us become, and how that damages the wider community.

In my first year, freshers were summoned to the college bar by older members of one sports team to give ‘thoroughly prepared’ presentations on their favourite pornography. Dozens of first-years turned up clutching carefully selected printouts of explicit scenes, hoping the College Master didn’t walk past while they queued up. 

Maybe I’m too strait-laced. You might say it’s harmless banter. But is it? I think it’s a dangerous situation when a sports team validates an industry with a history of sex trafficking, encourages its members to objectify people, and normalises a panel of older students sitting down for hours and interrogating 18-year-olds as they stammer through their sexual fantasies. It’s upsetting to think about the attitudes that sort of culture can instil, and perhaps explains why harassment is so widespread in Durham.

I turned up that day and meekly told the panel that I thought they were wrong. It was one of the most awkward, stomachchurning moments of my life. Not that it was worth the anxiety. A few days later, an initiation at the same club had merrymakers drinking each other’s vomit. It’s part of the reason why I’ve always been too terrified to attend a social with the team.

Until ethical considerations and welfare structures are brought into the organisation of these initiations, they’ll continue as they are: spaces where people unleash a callous alter ego, and move away from the point of sport in the first place: becoming happier and healthier versions of ourselves.

Image: Durham University

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