Team Durham breached a student’s anonymity after a welfare complaint was made against a Durham University Sports Club, Palatinate can reveal.
The complaint concerned the fresher’s experience of initiations during the preseason period, which involved head shaving, incidents of nudity and the forced consumption of large quantities of alcohol.
Feeling “burnt out physically and mentally” by the initiations, the student’s parent made an informal complaint on his behalf to the Director of Experience Durham, Quentin Sloper.
Team Durham subsequently revealed the fresher’s identity to senior members of the men’s team without his consent, which led to the student feeling isolated from the rest of the squad.
Speaking to Palatinate, the anonymous student in question, who played his sport at an international level prior to joining Durham University, said: “The events of preseason almost led me to drop out of the University before I had even experienced freshers’ week.
“I knew that the environment in the [club] was toxic and that it would not be possible to participate without being subjected to continual bullying and abuse.”
In response to the student pursuing the complaint after the breach of anonymity, a review panel was set up to investigate the club’s ‘non-playing culture’. Disciplinary action was also taken against team members involved, including match bans and community service.
The first year student, who has since left the club, outlined the five initiation ‘stations’ that freshers were subjected to during the ‘welcome drinks’ of 20th September 2017.
At the first ‘station’, the new players were made to drink a variety of unknown substances, including the forced consumption of alcohol. Vegetable oil was also poured into the student’s eyes by a senior member of the Club’s executive.
One ‘station’ involved freshers being forced to dive into a paddling pool filled with unknown items. The student later recalled being taken home, blacking out and vomiting in the night.
Palatinate was also told about a drinking game that took place on the night of 23rd September 2017 in which one of 10 freshers who lost would have his head shaved.
Despite stating in advance that he did not consent to the forfeit, the anonymous student was eventually forced to have his head shaved by senior team members.
The fresher told Palatinate: “I felt ill because of the amount of alcohol that I had been forced to consume in the week preceding freshers’ week and I had to go home because there was no emotional support or empathy offered by players or coaches.”
Durham University’s Public Interest Disclosure Policy on ‘Whistleblowing’ states that “All disclosures under this policy will be treated in a sensitive and, where possible, confidential manner. If required the identity of the individual making the disclosure will be kept confidential for as long as possible, provided that this is compatible with an effective investigation.”
In a letter to the student’s parents, dated 21st November, Durham University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge, stated that the student would have “to put his specific complaint in writing listing the incidents that he complains about, the identities of any individuals involved with a statement that we have consent to share his complaint with those named.”
The student did not make a formal complaint. However, during the informal complaints procedure he was not asked for “consent to share his complaint with those named”. He had not given consent to this identity being revealed.
In a statement to Palatinate, he said: “I was not aware that my identity would be revealed and my confidentiality broken… As expected, I was extremely shocked and upset when I found out my identity was revealed.”
A review group was set up by Team Durham to investigate the events and the culture within the Club in question. The review panel was headed by Team Durham Honorary President, Professor Joe Elliot, and also involved Dr Victoria Brown, Vice-Principal of Van Mildert College, and Matthew Bell, Team Durham Student President.
In a letter sent to Club members, the Club Captain urged “all members of the [Club], regardless of year group, to consider putting themselves forward to be part of this review.”
Following the actions of the review group, the student’s parents wrote to the Vice-Chancellor on 14th November to say they were “not reassured” by the investigation process.
The student made clear in his letter to the Vice-Chancellor, dated 22nd November 2017, that this “issue doesn’t just affect me and I think it is important to hear from everyone who has been affected by this”.
When asked for comment, the Club Captain said: “The club’s policy regarding initiations is in line with that of Team Durham, in that they are banned.
“The club would challenge the notion of holding ‘initiations’, whereby involvement was necessary to achieve club membership. This is not to say we do not recognise the issues of a pervasive drinking culture, which is acutely problematic within university sports club[s] like our own.
“The club recognises the toxic effect this can have and an active approach has been adopted to identify and address any such issues. This has involved: the undertaking of a comprehensive cultural review in participation with Team Durham, a club-wide anonymous survey and student-led discussions.
“The club is committed to ensuring we are inclusive and welcoming, and the actions undertaken reflect this.”
On the issue of initiations, Director of Experience Durham Quentin Sloper told Palatinate: “While social events can be great fun, and being part of a team can foster a sense of belonging, we will not accept ‘initiation ceremonies’ of any sort.
“We have and will penalise clubs that organise such activities. These are a direct breach of our Code of Conduct, which we use to ensure sports clubs and individuals are held accountable for their actions.
“We work hard to ensure clubs understand the importance of managing social occasions appropriately and respectfully.”
The official Team Durham Code of Conduct states that ‘Club initiations’ come under the remit of behaviour “not accepted by Team Durham”, but they are often rebranded as ‘welcome drinks’.
In October 2017 the Rugby Football Union (RFU) voiced concerns that humiliating initiations ceremonies at English universities were turning young players away from the game, in a report published by The Times.
One former member of Durham University Rugby Football Club (DURFC) told Palatinate that he believed drinking culture “was a pretty big part of playing rugby” at Durham.
The student, who wished to remain anonymous, played rugby to a high level before joining the University and said his decision to leave DURFC was partly based on the club’s drinking culture.
“I wouldn’t say the initiations and drinking culture were the main reason why I left but it was definitely a factor,” he said. “It meant that I didn’t enjoy going to the socials so going to them became something that I didn’t want to do. Training that much and playing matches combined with the socials just became physically and mentally draining.”
The student maintained that changes had to come from the Club itself rather than Team Durham.
“I think that any change will have to come from within the Rugby Club itself rather than from the University but there doesn’t seem to be any motivation for the Rugby Club to change,” he added.
Members of other Team Durham clubs have said initiations and drinking culture are not as important in their club’s social life.
One former member of Durham University Boat Club (DUBC), for instance, said her experience had been positive. “I don’t think initiations play a large role in DU rowing socials,” she explained.
“Initiations […] to welcome new members were not excessive or cruel, they were not much different from an average student night out, excluding the costumes and theme of the night.”
One former Team Durham club captain said it was important to distinguish between social culture and drinking culture across sports: “The social culture is good. I think it makes being part of a club more enjoyable, and that doesn’t necessarily have to include the alcohol part of it.
He told Palatinate that he did not see the point of initiation ceremonies: “I don’t think they need to be especially brutal at all, I don’t think it’s right that they are, because you just put people off.
“The older people in the club have a huge responsibility, that they don’t necessarily always recognise, in setting that social culture.”
He was unsure, however, as to Team Durham’s influence over initiation practices: “I think Team Durham are right to take a stance on forced drinking… but I don’t know necessarily what there is they can do to stop it.”
SU Welfare and Liberation Officer Rosa Tallack told Palatinate: “I welcome the step that Experience Durham have taken, in acknowledging what is often a buried and silent, yet huge issue.
“This work, though, must go further… Drinking culture and the culture of initiations more generally can be incredibly damaging to members of our Durham community.
“My hope is that tangible actions come out of the University’s work on this. I will advocate for these to include investment in student leadership, a system which places whistleblowers at the centre and transparent discipline processes.”
Photographs: Maiden Castle via Durham University, Team Durham via Wikicommons