Fresher Initiations

After hearing rumours of brutal hazings in York and other universities…Holly Thomas finds the truth

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….”

17 comments

  1. This is fantastically lazy journalism based on hearsay and conjecture.

    The Sussex University initiations that have been highlighted in this article are nothing short of complete fantasy. I graduated from Sussex University a couple of years ago and I have close links with the University still and I can categorically state that in the last 6 years nothing like the above has ever taken place.

    I have either witnessed, taken part in, or personally organised initiations spanning back 5 years now. I suspect that either the above example is something of ancient history at Sussex University, or more likely, that “Sam’s” quotes are just an example of lazy and lacklustre journalism.

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  2. Very lazy journalism. No evidence apart from hearsay and testimony from people who may or may not exist.

    I went to one of the Universities you name and shame, and indeed played in the club you allege behaved in such an apalling manner. I can confirm that nothing of the sort ever happened and you have your “facts” wrong. No-one was ever told they had to do anything, and no-one was refused entry to the club for opting out. Utter, utter nonsense.

    I note that you absolve York of any blame for such practices, yet their Rugby Press officer Tom states that their initiations (don’t mention the word initiations, i think i mentioned it once but got away with it) involve “lots of drinking”, the very thing this article is attacking. Marvellous stuff.

    The author of this article doesn’t seem too concerned about this little gem either:

    http://www.nouse.co.uk/2007/05/08/hockey-club-%e2%80%98fish-and-milk%e2%80%99-initiation-messy/

    Presumably as it’s York doing it, it’s ok? Never mind that it was designed to and made all particpants sick as well as sounding just as “humiliating” as any of the other tales of woe in this lacklustre article.

    If you must write such articles, try and actually put some thought and research in first.

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  3. Em, Mr Erection, I think you should note that the article you point us to is of a distinctly satirical bent – Nicky Woolf’s moniker should perhaps have alerted you to the fact. Better luck next time.

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  4. Unsubstantiated drivel. Good to know the calibre of the ‘University’ of York’s journalism isn’t subject to the rigorous evidence requirements of some of our respected national press or else you might not be able to make up any more articles to publish. Interesting that most of this article has as its basis complete hearsay and unverifiable urban legends as opposed to hard facts that can be examined. Flo from Lincoln, Sam from Sussex, Graham from York and Clare from Imperial eh? Hardly Fernando from Little Newton on Thyme is it?

    Yes what happened to Gavin Britton is terrible and my heart goes out to his family and friends. However, no one is forced to consume anything they don’t want to (and if they are then a much more serious crime has taken place that requires the attention of a greater authority than this article’s imaginative author). At the end of the day, these events are voluntary, and no one is refused entry to a club because they don’t participate. As ‘Sam’ says, people can opt out should they choose to, and if they don’t have the willpower to take this option then maybe they have bigger problems than which sports team to make up stories about.

    Oh, and by the way, I spoke to Sam, and he said that he was lying. I also spoke to Robert Genericname from York who had to [insert random made up disgusting act] as part of his initiation into York’s [random made up team]. I was disgusted and appalled. Suffice to say I will be writing an article about it. Don’t worry though, I won’t include any actual statements of fact. Quid pro quo.

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  5. Satirical or not, it doesn’t in any way detract from the other points i have made in my riposte.

    The “holier than thou” drivel in the above is poorly conceived, ill-informed and badly researched. The fact that it points the finger at other universities (with some highly dubious “evidence”) and then states that York doesn’t get involved in such ghastly practices is laughable to say the least.

    Still, why address the salient parts of my comments when you can score cheap points to make yourself feel good before retiring to your high horse to ponder the moral high ground eh?

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  6. 14 Oct ’09 at 1:36 pm

    Scaremongering

    I’m a third year and an established member of the football club playing at a high level who has never done an initiation or hazing.

    My best friends are in the the club and when at uni I feel most at home amongst its members.

    They honestly dont give a s*** whether I’ve been initiated and nor do I.

    What’s more important is being able to contribute to the team and the club.

    If you don’t want to do something have the grapes to say you dont.

    Poor article.

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  7. And I thought it was only the Sussex Uni paper that made up completely fictional stories about the hockey team!
    I have no idea where the story about Sussex hockey has arisen from, but it probably isn’t from someone who played hockey at Sussex or is even remotely related to Sussex. We have an understanding union, if fairly disorganised at times, that allows us to run socials on campus and provides all the sports teams with a safe bus into town, maybe this is the ‘team mini van’ you talk about? I think dropping students off naked on West Street is probably one of best ideas a lazy and completely useless journalist could come up with to try and make what is really a very optional and relaxed social scene seem edgy and out of control.
    All I can hope is that your degree from York puts you in a position where journalism isn’t your only option. If it is then can I suggest you apply for a job at the Daily Mail where sensationalist and fabricated stories are welcomed with open arms. If on the other hand this is a satirical piece I think a more satirical style may be appropriate. Either way this article is pretty substandard from a university with supposedly high academic standards and a student body that considers itself, falsely or otherwise, to be better than the average.
    I’m off to read the Sun, bound to be a step up from this piece of fiction.

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  8. To address some of the above points…

    wFirstly, no, the article is not intended as satirical. However, as the opening paragraph suggests, it at no point claims that these ‘initiatiations’ happen, blow for blow, as they are sometimes reported to have done- and thus stories are wont to become exaggerated as they are passed on. I think the point is made quite clear that what is perhaps more worrying about these practices is that a) rumours surrounding them, be they true or not, can be intimidating to freshers, and b) in whatever capacity, it cannot be denied that in group situations, such as these at the beginning of term, very heavy drinking does occur and this can affect people’s judgement and actions.

    I must also say that I bear NO sports team any ill will whatsoever, and that it is made quite clear that this article concerns initiations, which has nothing to do with the quality or performance of any of the teams themselves. I have made it very clear when what I am writing is based on the recollections of third parties, and make no claim to have been present at the time. I was told about the event at Sussex by a trusted source, their memories may be accurate, they may not. As a journalist however it is my duty to protect such a source- though I can say that Sam is not their real name. I have absolutely nothing against anyone at Sussex, I was simply quoting what I was told, in the words given to me. As a journalist, I can only go so far in terms of verification with a report of this nature- therefore I did not at any point claim to have any knowledge beyond the interview. The article is meant to convey this exact idea- the fact that so much myth surrounding hazing is just that- MYTH- however often myth with some root in truth.

    Regarding the comments about other Universities. I absolutely do not intend to offend or ‘point the finger’ at any of the universities I mentioned. I can however verify that I did not ‘make up’ any stories in order to liven up the feature or to make York appear in some way ‘superior’ by comparison. The reports were all from reliable sources, and the very nature of the material is such that I must trust their testimony. I was not present at any of these events, therefore I cannot personally say ‘I saw’ etc. I do not wish to imply that York is in some way ‘superior’, just because the reports do not originate from here. These are simply the places and events that came up during my investigation. I at no point targeted anywhere deliberately or maliciously. The very nature of the subject matter is that it is surroundeed by rumour, a point made repeatedly in the piece. The article was not intended to preach, but simply to look a little further into an issue which is relevant at the start of the University year, and particularly to freshers.

    I hope that this addresses some of the above points,

    Best wishes,

    Holly

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  9. I can’t even take seriously the ramblings of a desperate, back-tracking, own-behind-covering, buck-passing journalist who makes a mistake eight words into their retort. At least have the convictions to stick to your guns Ms. Thomas.

    The fact remains you have aided in the spreading of malicious rumours about fellow institutions with complete disregard for the truth. Whether expressly stated or not, it is quite clear that you have worded this article so as to install in the reader a sense that the events occurred as described. In my opinion, if you did this intentionally then it’s verging on slander, whilst if it was done accidentally, you’re simply inept. I’ll leave it to you to choose how you try and scurry away from this problem. Either way, this article seriously calls into question your integrity and journalistic credibility, and your response to the comments makes me question your self respect.

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  10. I have never heard those rules for centurion ever. “The game is simple: one shot of beer per minute until the player passes out.” Really?? I believed it was called centurion because it was 100 shots of your chosen fizzy liquid in 100 minutes and if you throw-up your out (highly likely with the amount of extra air you take in doing it shot wise).

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  11. please can we stop referring to sussex as a university. It really isn’t.

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  12. One of the problems that journalists, whether amateur or professional, often face is that their readers don’t know how to read. By that I mean that they may be able to struggle through the actual words. But they have no idea of how to interpret or parse what they have just read.

    For example, they confuse the accurate reporting of a quote made by an interviewee with the actual opinions of the journalist, or a statement of fact. They also assume that if they do not have personal experience of a particular phenomenon, then that phenomenon cannot have taken place.

    This article begins with a quote. From the journalist’s point of view, the purpose of that quote is to set the scene … and the fact that there is a perception of initiations, hazings, drinking rituals, etc is as significant for the purposes of this piece, as the factual existence of those things.

    But wait! There IS evidence for the factual existence of fresher drinking rituals, because someone actually died as a result of one of them. This is a checkable fact. I checked it. Then I checked the fact about Gloucester University and the student in Nazi uniform. An investigation was indeed launched, just as the article suggests.

    Just in the past week, after this article went to press, another student, Phillip Laing was caught urinating on a war memorial in Sheffield as part of a Carnage UK fresher’s pub-crawl: not affiliated to a particular sports club, but certainly evidence of an unruly, potentially dangerous drinking culture among students that leads to them acting utterly shamefully. Does anyone seriously deny that students, and young people in general, are sometimes put under intense peer-pressure to drink, often to excess, in order to fit in with all the other drunks around them?

    This is, by any reasonable standards, an entirely legitimate subject for a journalist to cover.

    The particular allegations that seem to have got respondents particularly riled up, however, relate to the quotations from students at Sussex and Lincoln universities. It’s possible that these could have been made up by Holly Thomas, though she specifically denies that. It is also possible that the people she was quoting invented or embellished their stories: again she insists they were trustworthy.

    I was fascinated to see Long Hair’s assertion that he/she had spoken to Sam who said that (a) he’d been lying when he gave his quote and (b) that people could opt out of inititiation rites if they wanted to. Well, which is it? If he lied, that implied that he invented the whole story about being stripped and left in the middle of Brighton. If the team-members could get out of it, that suggests there was an inititation, but it was optional.

    Personally, what I detect is the not-uncommon phenomenon of a source becoming nervous when he realises that he may have said something that could get him into trouble, then furiously denying he ever said it, or that he really meant what he did say. It happens all the time.

    Equally common is the tedious, clichéd and, yes, lazy accusation that journalists are lazy. I suppose, in an ideal world, it would have been nice to find other people who went on the rituals described so that they were all double-sourced. But a student journalist, with no professional resources at her disposal, who also has a degree to complete can hardly be expected to go to those lengths.

    And, by the way, in the current climate of cost-cutting and staff downsizing, nor would any professional journalist. The notion of ‘ the rigorous evidence requirements of some of our respected national press’ is frankly a total fantasty. That’s not because journalists are lazy or stupid. It’s because they’re over-worked and under-resourced in newspapers terrified of the rise of the internet, whose managers get paid bonuses for cutting writers’ pay-rates and staffing levels.

    If the source is quoted accurately, says something relevant and does not libel someone who is likely to sue, that’ll do for any Fleet Street editor of my acquaintance.

    In the meantime, journalists just have to put up with the fact that not only are their employers tight-fisted, overpaid bastards, but many of their readers are utter f*ckwits.

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  13. Clearly the comments on this message board are not moderated as stated. If they were Smile Dog’s comments would have been filtered and recognised as false and idiotic.

    The University of Sussex was the first of the new wave of universities founded in the 1960s, receiving its Royal Charter in August 1961. Nearly 50 years on, the University has become a leading teaching and research institution. In the 2008 Times Higher Education University World Rankings, Sussex was ranked in the top 20 in the UK, the top 50 in Europe, and the top 150 worldwide.

    Thanks for your time Smile Dog, but you won’t be wasting any more of mine.

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  14. 19 Oct ’09 at 1:02 pm

    Supporter of Smile Dog

    I completely concur. Sussex only rank highly on the Guardian rankings because they got the highest “value added score” in the top 40 which seems to have no definition… and though only #35 on the Times it gives out 82% firsts and 2:1s… cheating scum!

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  15. “cheating scum!”… Another ridiculous allegation with no foundation. You must work for Nouse too.

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  16. Pro hack:

    “I was fascinated to see Long Hair’s [sic] assertion that he/she had spoken to Sam who said that (a) he’d been lying when he gave his quote and (b) that people could opt out of inititiation rites if they wanted to. Well, which is it? If he lied, that implied that he invented the whole story about being stripped and left in the middle of Brighton. If the team-members could get out of it, that suggests there was an inititation, but it was optional.”

    You’re kidding right? I mean, you’ve got to be kidding? Obviously this was meant as a jovial way to illustrate my point. The whole idea of your response is that “[journalists'] readers don’t know how to read”, and you can’t even tell when an interview with Sam is being satirised – even when followed by the sentence, “I also spoke to Robert Genericname from York who had to [insert random made up disgusting act] as part of his initiation into York’s [random made up team].”

    I think you’ll also find that my reference to ‘Sam’ saying these rites could be “opted out of” was in reference to the line “I wish in retrospect that someone had refused”, quoted from ‘Sam’ in the original article, not from any subsequent fictional interview I conducted with him.

    Quite frankly I am dumbfounded by your ignorance, and in answer to your question, “Well, which is it?” the answer is in fact (c) neither you egotistical moron. I’ll refer you to your evidently self-referential allegation that “readers are utter f*ckwits” and leave you.

    Smile dog:

    “please [sic] can we stop referring to sussex [sic] as a university. It really isn’t.”

    Nice, really like what you did there – you took an utter fabrication and posted it with no evidence, support, back-up, research or sources whatsoever in an attempt to be funny. Well you failed… miserably. I’d commiserate you but by the sounds of you, you’re already well versed in dealing with this experience, which is good news for your future.

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  17. 12 Dec ’13 at 10:01 pm

    Rugby Lad Yah

    I decided not to attend the York rugby ‘fun’ as I didn’t want other people urinating in my mouth and having the need to hold my mates penis while he goes for a pee!

    Reply




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