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Initiations: The state of play

The initiation is the boldest example of our student drinking culture and its consequences. It is the traditional booze filled welcome to a University sports club, and an event undertaken by sports clubs up and down the country.

At this time of year initiations cause problems throughout Britain. Some even end in tragedy, with deaths reported at Staffordshire (2003) and Exeter (2006). There are also well-publicised disgraces such as the incident reported by the Guardian in 2008, when a Gloucestershire student wearing a Nazi uniform threw eggs at his new team-mates while they vomited with plastic bags over their heads.

This week I spoke to Activities Officer, Scott Sheridan, about University of Sussex Student Union’s (USSU) stance on sports initiations. “Many university unions bury their heads in the sand,” Scott told me. “They ban initiations on campus and expect this to solve any problems that might crop up later. We have tried to address the situation properly, carrying out risk assessments in advance and by making sure somebody is present at these things so they don’t get out of hand. We want sports men and women of any background to be able to enjoy participating.”

Initiations are the very public face of the binge drinking culture of University. A culture that can lead to shocking incidents, such as the one I encountered in my second year as an undergraduate at Leeds University. The body of Gavin Terry from Leeds Met was discovered in the River Aire, he had been – according to his friends and Nigel Bunyan’s description in the Telegraph – ‘a promising rugby player’. The young man was drinking in halls of residence before he died.

Although the tragedy was not linked to an initiation, the outcome points to the fragility of any person – however young, fit and talented at sport. The deputy coroner of West Yorkshire had this to say in the aftermath: “He was, unhappily, so drunk that he probably did not recognise what he was doing when he went into the river.” The ‘pre-lash’ is my, and many students’, favourite part of a night out. The worst nightmares of parents shouldn’t stop us from being depraved so long as we look after one another. The initiation ups the ante of the pre-lash, as students walk a thin line between bullying and the best night of a semester.

If an entire team both outwardly and inwardly enjoy the process, their togetherness is a triumph that can mark the beginnings of lifelong friendships. The centre half, the goal attack, the opening bat; you’ll never get bored of remembering their dumb scandals in the years to come: who slept with who on tour, who substituted Jack’s gum shield for a urinal cake before Southampton away, and so on.

However there are an increasing number of sports teams who are shying away from initiations as a way of welcoming new members. Matt Stroud, Men’s Cricket President told me that ‘The cricket club welcomes Freshers with a night out on their terms, with no pressure to complete an initiation. This is more down to our personal tastes than any moral objection to initiations, I can see the attraction of an initiation to some’.

Although sports clubs take different views on initiations, they seem to agree that initiations can be a fun welcome to a new club, and are an integral part of University sport. It is crucial though that initiations are carefully monitored, as they are at Sussex. These events will always tread a thin line between success and failure, a line that Universities must ensure is not crossed.

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