Initiating Change

Another year, another bunch of freshers, another round of ‘initiations’. So far this year sports’ ‘Welcome Socials’ have been incredibly welcoming and nothing less. Meanwhile, underground ‘initiations’ included far more outrageous and controversial events.

The particular culture that enables these events was highlighted on the 17th of October at the BUCS Super Rugby game. Obscene chants from members of the University of Bath Rugby Club towards their Leeds Beckett opposition – ‘F*** Off to Your Council Homes’- set a poor tone for the year ahead. The footage, which can be found on the Bath Time website, has been criticised by Rugby Club Chair Josh Rodgers and SU Sports Officer Andy Galloway as “disappointing” and unrepresentative of the values of the SU and the University. The groupthink mentality displayed in these chants are commonplace in the underground sports initiations across campus.

Despite SU intervention to ban ‘initiation’ ceremonies, extreme behaviour and challenges are still the norm among many sports clubs. On just one cold Wednesday evening earlier this term, there were numerous initiations clearly visible on campus involving nasty eating challenges, freshers coerced into crawling on their hands and knees, and drinking challenges involving buckets of alcohol and funnels of milk. The common factor among such events is often a hierarchy whereby returners dictate the rules and punishments to “inferior” freshers.

Some participants have said this creates a sense of intimidation rather than integration in their teams. At the Cheerleading ‘initiation’ a bystander reported “freshers being dominated” and commanded assertively by older students. Events included freshers having their faces covered in a combination of alcohol and flour and people were taking photos of the team in various sex positions as well as them doing a variation of the human centipede. Similarly at football initiations in Oldfield Park an observer reported seeing “several footballers in speedos bent over doggy style and covered in dirt”.

As of this year, the SU Sport Executive Committee has introduced Welfare & Inclusivity Officers to every sporting committee. While the effects are seemingly varied between sports, gradual change is being made. One Welfare & Inclusivity Officer commented to Bath Time, “my role includes ensuring that all new members of the club feel welcomed rather than intimidated. A culture of fear and exclusion benefits no-one, and so this year our club made a conscious effort to make sure that no individual was forced to participate in any activity they didn’t feel comfortable with”.

At some clubs, official ‘welcome socials’ involve nothing more harmful than a talent show competition.  Indeed, for one hockey fresher, entertaining the club with a rendition of Adele was part of their initiation.  A few self-conscious lines of ‘Hello’ might be considered as a team building exercise because putting one’s individual ego aside can be important for a cohesive, winning team.  

However, the Student Union’s introduction of the 2015 ‘Counter the Culture’ campaign highlights grave issues that arise when ‘Welcome Socials’ cross the line to becoming traditional ‘initiations’. After 2000 responses to the SU’s lad culture survey from the student body, the campaign pledged to tackle key factors of pack mentality and heavy alcohol consumption rife amongst student societies and sports clubs. The SU have also put Welfare and Inclusivity Officers into place, and now require ‘Welcome Social’ forms to be submitted 7 days prior to an event, with disciplinary consequences for those who do not comply with agreed arrangements. With best efforts being made to reduce peer pressure, the cycle of initiations may not have died out just yet but appears to be reducing in prevalence.

An anonymous member of the University of Bath Association Football and Futsal Club recalled their ‘lifeguard and swimmers’ welcome social at Green Park Station in 2016.  With freshers dressed in “nothing but a pair of speedos and a swimming cap”, they were taken through a series of challenges and encouraged to participate in “repeated physical exercises, chasing after girls and downing all sorts afterwards”. Similar drinking pressure is reported in previous tennis and netball initiations that occured in 2016, where freshers were requested to “bring their taste buds along” and endure a mixture of drinking and eating challenges. This often resulted in new club members being “sick and not remembering much after”.

This brings to question where do we draw the line? Joining a club and meeting new people should be fun but at what point does being welcomed into a society go too far?  For a fresher who wishes remain anonymous, the pressure to participate in a series of initiation challenges resulted in them quitting their sports team all together. After a failed attempt to complete a list of requests including “stealing bras, eating bonsai tree fertiliser and stealing a tree,” the new club member was ordered by their team to down a “dirty pint containing all sorts which included the fertiliser.”  Perhaps it is time for all students to call last orders on initiations that drive players away.

Every year, numerous stories of initiations gone horribly wrong emerge nationally. Extreme cases at other universities in the past, as reported by The Mirror, involved carrots being inserted into players and them being blindfolded and urinated on. The Rugby Football Union estimated that 10,000 school leavers in 2016 stopped playing rugby as of October 2017, and while some will always stop when they hit 18, there is a concern that the extreme rugby culture is driving fans of the game away. If not actively curbed, these night-outs can escalate to radical lengths quite easily. A mix of peer pressure and eagerness among freshers to feel validated in a social group fosters a fresher-senior relationship based on intimidation. Incidents from initiations are often held against members through the year. This also raises concerns of how weighty athletic merit is while recruiting newcomers.

In response to these events, SU Sports Officer, Andrew Galloway, commented: “Initiations in sports clubs are a national issue and with 49 clubs at Bath, it’s no surprise that on occasion, behavior can cross the line. Over the past few years the SU has worked with our clubs to try to foster an environment where new members are welcomed in a way that is enjoyable for everyone involved. We require all clubs to submit a welcome social document outlining their plans for the event, showing that they’ve read and understood the rules and expectations in place. I also sent out a welcome email to all our new club members explaining the systems in place for anyone to report experiences that made them feel uncomfortable. One of these options is the Welfare and Inclusivity Officers who are now a core position on club committees which has been a really positive step in effecting change. Many clubs are making progress in changing the culture within their own clubs which is great to see, this is demonstrated through a record number (30) of sports clubs signing up to the Inclusivity Award. I’m sure there will always be individuals who cause issues but it is important to understand that the SU has structures in place to both prevent and deal with these issues when they arise.”

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