It’s a Wednesday night, which means it’s time for me to start getting ready for a busy shift at the student bar. It is also time for all of us to think about, look into and discuss university sports initiations and the culture behind them. I firmly believe that education, especially at university, goes beyond academic studies., I will be sharing research and thoughts on education with a focus on culture, wellbeing and inclusion as well as incorporating potential points of policy change. Given student initiations are the baptism into society life, I consider this the best place to start the conversation.
Recent research suggests that young males between the ages of 18-24 constitute the most frequent cases of alcohol related treatment in emergency departments. This indicates that something is drastically wrong in the wider spectrum of youth drinking culture. The history of sports societies’ initiations, most famously in rugby, hockey and football clubs, can also explain where these ideas find fertile ground. Initiation ceremonies are meant to introduce first year students to the culture of the sports club and give them a taste of what being a member is like – so, while not directly blaming any individuals in charge of ‘initiating’ their new recruits, there are several points that explain why initiation is fundamentally flawed and, ultimately, hazardous and unacceptable.
Unacknowledged risks to health
Having spoken to many members of sports clubs in the process of writing this article, what surprised me was a denial of obvious hazards that the practice of initiations – and the culture that accompanies it – pose to students. Cases of students losing their lives during those big nights out have made national news so frequently that conversation outside academic panels and between the student community should have started long ago. Particularly striking is the case of the death of Newcastle student Ed Farmer in 2016. The post-mortem examination showed that he had consumed more than five times the legal alcohol level and had passed away due to the resulting toxic effects. Crucially, none of Farmer’s companions were able to recognise that he was in a life-threatening situation. While many universities officially banned initiations after this incident, it is commonly acknowledged that these ceremonies continue. In reality, regulating and policing adult students in their activities outside the classroom can be both difficult and controversial. For instance, the University of Edinburgh’s decision to ban the practice of downing bottles of alcopops was met with loud opposition on campus and regarded by many as a step too far.
Accepting that the university cannot control the social activities of sports societies emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility. There is a lethal information gap that results in students believing that they will simply wake up with a headache and miss class, rather than potentially be hospitalized or worse. Universities and Student Unions, with their pastoral responsibilities towards students, should be more involved in this discussion. Providing informative induction talks targeted at both first-years and older students about the risks of excessive alcohol consumption would be a constructive first step. The existing mechanisms of raising awareness for sexual harassment and discrimination, for instance through online courses or induction lectures, could be equally effective in raising awareness.
Mental Health, Consent and Society Power Relations
Whilst physical harm is always a possibility, it is true that most of the time everyone makes it home safely. With the growing awareness about mental health and concern about the role of institutions, it is worth considering how sports’ social culture can prove detrimental. It is commonly known that alcohol can negatively impact people who are already facing mental health problems. Moreover, excessive consumption in itself can potentially trigger mental health issues, as it can destabilise sleeping patterns, disrupt healthy eating habits and result in an overall negative frame of mind. These challenges specifically apply to sports societies, beginning at initiation and continuing on through a year of ‘Sports Nights’ Wednesdays and nights out on weekends. The initiation process itself especially highlights this problem, with inexperienced first year students keen to prove that they can push themselves to their limits. Building one’s social life at university around a heavy drinking culture may trigger future problems with general well-being.
Conversely, some argue that initiations and the commitment to a social calendar of extreme drinking are the consensual choice of students. Consent, however, works differently in a structure built on power relations, in which the respect of older players is crucial for Freshers’ inclusion in the team. Students who have experienced initiation recall that completing the ‘tasks’ of the night were crucial for getting accepted. Tasks have included pouring cooking oil into students’ eyes and naked wrestling in sick. It is difficult to comprehend how one enjoys, and thus consents, to such activities. To combat this, universities should create a secure and confidential line through which students can report events and file complaints anonymously. Through this, such events could finally be brought to an end. Even with participants’ consent,these activities directly clash with the values of sports and Student Unions.
Many universities have banned initiation ceremonies in an attempt to combat toxic drinking culture, which has come to define sports socially. However, it is common practice for societies to proceed with them unofficially. These ceremonies and their aftermath achieve nothing towards welcoming students to university or sport.
While the perks of active involvement in student societies, even with a drink or two, are numerous, many societies – particularly sports – have taken drinking culture to an unhealthy extreme. If universities truly care about their students’ wellbeing, they should start working to raise awareness amongst students and provide them with the resources to enjoy a fun, safe experience.
Hari Dinis is the Researcher for the Education Policy Centre.
Parkinson K, Newbury-Birch D, Phillipson A, et al, Prevalence of alcohol related attendance at an inner city emergency department and its impact: a dual prospective and retrospective cohort study, Emergency Medicine Journal 2016;33:187-193.Accessed 25.09.2019 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4789717/)
The Guardian, UK Universities publish guidance on risks of initiation ceremonies, Accessed 25.09.2019,https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/sep/23/uk-universities-publish-guidance-on-risks-of-initiation-ceremonies
The Mirror, Student Union Bans ‘strawpedoing’ craze that allows student drinkers to down whole bottles in seconds,Accessed:25.09.2019https://www.mirror.co.uk/usvsth3m/student-union-bans-strawpedoing-craze-5265949
The Times, Ed Farmer death: students defy ban on fresher rituals, Accessed 25.09.2019, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/db6a6cc2-da1b-11e8-9dc6-a299178189bc
BBC, Ed Farmer inquest: Student died from ‘toxic effects’ of alcohol, Accessed 25.09.2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-45979243