Ziggy’s and an inebriated sportsman who’s mistaken me for a fresher is sharing some wisdom: “I’ve heard the rowers drown a fresher at random, while the footballers sit in a big circle and practice their crying. That may or may not be true. Still, none of them are man enough to get naked and roll down Clifford’s Tower.”
Initiation rituals or ‘hazings’ have been around as long as universities themselves. Upon entry into a society, new members undergo a series of tasks or challenges designed to foster group camaraderie. These are often unpleasant and occasionally degrading in the extreme. Common themes include alcohol, nudity, vandalism and subsequent arrest. Students usually take part in order to demonstrate their allegiance to a particular society or sport’s team- their willingness to accept degradation and embarrassment serving as proof of their fervour. As a rule, the more exclusive the society or club, the more extreme the hazing. The secrecy surrounding these rituals creates fertile ground for hearsay; stories with which older students can shock, excite and intimidate the new and innocent in equal measure.
Practices range from the relatively tame to the downright dangerous. In 2006 18 year-old University of Exeter student Gavin Britton died from alcohol poisoning having consumed four vodkas, three pints of cider, a glass of wine and numerous sambucas before downing a pint of spirits as part of his initiation into the University golf club. Even this lamentable incident has not halted the widespread custom of putting new members (predominantly freshers) through their paces with demeaning rites of passage. To be granted membership of The University of Cambridge University men’s drinking society ‘The Wyverns’, candidates must consume a 15 course dinner including a pig’s snout covered in wasabi, and a pint of water with a live goldfish swimming in it. If the goldfish is regurgitated and still alive, prospective members may skip the following two courses.
Tragedies like that of Gavin Britton have led to a clamping down on University initiations in recent years. Gloucestershire University launched a formal investigation in 2008 following the release of video footage showing students being marched through the streets by a man in a Nazi uniform and lined up against a wall before several vomited. Another segment of the video, which was filmed by Natalie Sutton, a broadcast journalism student at the university, showed a group being forced to exercise furiously under the observation of men wearing black t-shirts. Hannah, a first year, tells me: “My friend at Newcastle didn’t join the rugby team, because new rugby players have to drink out of used bins and shoes. Also people are sometimes dared to dive into shallow rivers – he just didn’t want to take the chance.”
Reassuringly, it doesn’t appear to be the case that sports hopefuls at York must undergo tortuous initiations in order to be accepted onto the teams. Tom Weir, York Rugby Club Press and Publicity officer commented: “We can’t use the phrases ‘initiation’ or ‘hazing now, they’ve really clamped down. It’s more fear of a word than anything, but we don’t really do anything too hardcore now anyway. It’s really more a case of lots of drinking…it’s not compulsory, but it does foster team spirit!”
Tom explains: “There are people on the team who don’t drink, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good rugby players, just that they’re not good drinkers! We obviously know the difference and I think that goes across the board for the sports teams, you pick the team at training, not at the bar. The way I think about it is, if I didn’t want to do something, then I’m not going to turn around and tell someone else to do it”
This is not the case everywhere. I spoke to Flo, a third year studying at the University of Lincoln. Having decided to try out for the Hockey team, and being accepted, Flo and her new team mates were instructed to meet on the pitch after the first practice “wearing school uniform”.
“After the expected drinking games involving a disgusting two pence piece and much singing, the existing members of the boys and girls teams took out permanent markers and starting drawing on the potential new members. The men’s team basically claimed my boobs, and scrawled horrific things all over them (they pulled my top up for ‘ease of access’).” Here one can understand the emphasis placed on heavy drinking by the senior members: “The rude words and slogans scrawled across my arms and face might have shattered my confidence if vodka hadn’t made up such a large percentage of my bloodstream. I felt completely used and degraded, I couldn’t look any of them in the eye for weeks afterwards”, Flo added. By the end of this disgusting event, newbies were “vomiting all over each other”.
This is disturbing enough; however it appears that when such events are taken beyond the relative safety of a University campus things become further out of hand. I speak to Sam, who signed up for the Hockey Club when he started Sussex University: “It started at the club. There was this awful obstacle course, where we were made to do a series of exercises – running laps, star jumps, push ups and for every set we completed they had to down another drink. A different kind every time too – pints of beer, shots… you name it.”
One would assume that this would be enough to prove the new member’s mettle. There was however, a further stage to the proceedings. Sam continued:
“Completely intoxicated, nauseous, or post-nauseous, we were bundled into the team’s mini van. Then they stripped us, took literally everything we had on us.” As if this wasn’t humiliating enough, there was one final challenge. “We were driven to an ‘unknown location’ – though to be honest, we were all new to the Uni, so the local area was pretty unfamiliar territory. Then we were all dumped there, and before the van drove off we were given the challenge of returning to base camp at the uni campus.”
The unknown location turned out to be West Street, one of the busiest streets in Brighton centre. It was after dark when they were dropped right outside Wetherspoons – pushed out of the van to make their way back to campus. “Six and a half miles without money, phones… or clothes, or risk losing the respect of the club. You felt like you had to do it, but I wish in retrospect that someone had refused, because I don’t think anyone remotely enjoyed it. It could have gone so wrong, imagine being arrested before you’d even finished your first term.”
It appears that at York also, hockey is the most infamous sport’s club in terms of initiation-type drinking games and ‘hazing’, though by no means in so extreme a form as Sam’s experience at Sussex. First year Graham was present during the hockey president’s weekend at the end of last term, when the club celebrated the end of the season. He described: “They did an obstacle course style thing – a different one each for boys and girls. It was pretty grim. Boys had to down pints of Guinness with olive oil, eat raw onion, dog food, and some other pretty foul looking drinks. It was a pretty embarrassing sight all round.”
There does nevertheless appear to be a general desire on campus to moderate this behaviour, so unfavourable would be a comparison with nationally publicised incidences such as the Nazi Gloucester. Rugby Press Officer Tom Weir agrees: “I think there’s been a clampdown since then. And I think there was a bit of a witch hunt making sure York wasn’t going to get dragged in and compared with those horrible people down in Gloucester.”
He continues, “I think there’s a difference between someone drinking and then being sick and making someone drink with the specific purpose of making them sick. If you have a few drinks, have a bit of a dodgy stomach then it is a possibility, but that’s not like forcing someone to keep drinking until they throw up. You occasionally get someone who’s had too much them self and then says something out of turn, but not the club as a whole.”
What, one might enquire, is the point? If these rituals are nothing but a humiliating means of torturing freshers, how is it that they have endured so long? I put this to Flo: “I think that there may be an element of, well, I had to go through it to ‘get in’ to the club, so why should these new guys get in for free? Like if you really want to be part of the gang then you should be willing to put up with one gruesome night. And you do feel that in some twisted way you have shared an experience with the other new members that people who weren’t there wouldn’t be able to relate to. Unless their breasts had been ambushed by drunken hockey players with marker pens.”
I ask her how far she would be prepared to go to get into a society. “Well I do think that some of the more extreme things you hear about are absolutely disgusting. I have a friend at Southampton who had to drink a bottle of wine through fish guts to get into a sport’s club. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to be a member, if that was the kind of thing that was expected, it could never be worth the humiliation. But I think a lot of people don’t mind it if it’s just extreme drinking – it’s just another heavy night out to them.”
It is certainly shocking, what to some, might pass for a normal night’s drinking. One infamous drinking game ‘centurion’, is apparently a favourite for welcoming new students into their university careers. The game is simple: one shot of beer per minute until the player passes out. For an eight and a half stone girl, ten units of alcohol drunken consecutively could raise her blood alcohol percentage to 0.38. This would be enough to risk severe depression, unconsciousness, or even death.
Yet every student I questioned agreed that whilst ten units one after the other did seem very excessive, it would by no means be out of the question to consume that amount over the course of a night. Furthermore, although most did not feel under peer pressure to drink, there was definitely a sense that the ability to ‘hold one’s drink’ was something to be envied or even admired. James, a Vanbrugh fresher, eagerly relates “I have a friend who I’ve literally seen down three pints, one after the other. He’s a massive guy but it was still bloody impressive, I’d have chundered after one and a half”.
There are some less disturbing, more amusing stories. Clare, a third year medical student at Imperial College, recalls an initiation she witnessed: “Freshers had to bring a hat, kilt, two litre booze bottle and a fish ‘suitable for self-defence’. They then did an assault course outside (wearing only hat and kilt) where they had to chug a different drink each time, all mixed up and designed to make them throw up… I think one was Guinness followed by ginger ale followed by milk. They finished off by fighting each other with their chosen fish. To be honest, it seemed more a good laugh than disgusting though!”
Josh, a second year, tells me about a society initiation a friend of his at Edinburgh University apparently went through during his first year: “All the freshers turn up with their passports. They have a big game of five’s – similar to rock paper scissors in a way and the loser has to get on a plane to Amsterdam pretty much immediately. There was also a list of tasks they had to do before they were allowed to come home. It may be urban legend but I really hope it’s true….”