Tame tradition or too far? Inside sports initiations at King’s

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Sports initiations are an infamous if mysterious, tradition of university life. For each King’s sports team, the academic year begins by recruiting new members. The freshers (though not always first years) are then ‘initiated’ into the club through a series of games and activities, ranging from relatively tame drinking to some more extreme (and disgusting) inductions.

While to a university outsider, initiations may seem like a brutal and unnecessary rite of passage to simply play on a sports team, what they involve varies significantly between teams, sports, and universities. Having said that, in my experience trying to gain an insight into sports initiations, I noticed two recurring themes: for one, alcohol was a major part. And secondly, no one was keen to reveal the details.

Though not new, sports initiations have come under fire recently after reports of the concerning and in some cases fatal consequences of the tradition elsewhere in the UK. Most prominently, the death of an economics student at the University of Newcastle late last year, who was tragically declared brain dead after consuming a level of alcohol so extreme his brain was starved of oxygen. The growing concern following Ed Farmer’s death, as well as other horror stories, has led many universities, including King’s, to attempt to limit initiations and their propensity to get out of hand.

Alex* has been both the initiator and initiated for his sports team, which he joined in the first year. His descriptions of this year’s initiation activities for new team members were not altogether surprising. The consistent theme, of course, is drinking: racing to finish horrible food and drinks, ‘tampon bobbing in a fairly nasty concoction’, ‘some wax strips’ and more of the same. 

Alex and Hugo* (another sports team member responsible for planning initiations this year) spoke positively about initiations, emphasising their ability to introduce new team members to existing players as well as bring everyone closer together. ‘The initiations are a great club bonding event’, said Alex, while for Hugo they provide ‘a sense of solidarity between freshers’. 

But initiations aren’t for everyone – nor do all freshers have a positive experience. Although both Alex and Hugo emphasised that new team members were never forced to drink, others have told of the inevitable social pressure to take part. Kate* actively avoided the tradition this year after hearing horror stories from past initiations. She was apprehensive when joining a sports team, having ‘heard from friends before about initiations’ which she described as ‘actually quite scary’. Kate told of a friend’s experience of initiations, which involved having ‘his private parts touched’. Her friend left the team because of it.

Indeed, while most initiations at King’s are described as fairly tame (especially compared with other universities), Kate expressed a concern at how out of control initiations can become when all involved are getting increasingly drunker over the course of the night. This is typically how horror stories occur – and why King’s is not alone in putting restrictions on initiations. No initiation activities are now allowed to take part on King’s property, and sports teams ‘are under more scrutiny about the whole process’, says Alex. As a result, the initiations ‘have got a little more tame’ and shorter.

On the surface, especially upon hearing stories such as the death of Ed Farmer in Newcastle, cracking down on initiations seems logical. But while Alex agrees not allowing initiations on university grounds in ‘understandable’, it also ‘makes the whole process a little more of an unknown’. In the case of Ed Farmer, the society were forced to disassociate from their university when taking part in initiations. Though there is no way of knowing how it could have turned out differently, perhaps being able to associate the initiations more closely with the university may have allowed more regulation, and intervention when things went too far.

It’s worth noting that when I was doing research for this article, I heard from multiple people that rugby teams are renowned for putting on outrageous and extreme initiations. But unsurprisingly, no one was keen to divulge the details, even anonymously. For more introverted freshers hoping to join a rugby team, this level of secrecy and the potential for very alcohol-heavy activities could be off-putting.

No one I interviewed, though, felt that initiations had a net negative impact. There was a sense that drinking was more of a social lubricant than a tool for group pressure, and most initiations are done light-heartedly with consideration for the less outgoing new recruits. But horror stories from universities elsewhere ought to act as warnings for what can happen when initiations go too far and show that even the most established of traditions are not beyond reproach.

*Names have been changed

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