The Times has published an article which criticises Russell Group universities for a lack of social inclusionWritten by missaneesaahmed on 15th October 2018
Redbrick News Investigates: The Social Side of Birmingham Sport
Rumours of bullying, intimidation and drunken behaviour. Redbrick investigates what is really happening behind closed doors within UoB's biggest and most infamous sports teams.
After hearing rumours that a UB Sport team was asking their freshers to partake in a non-disclosure type agreement before attending socials, Redbrick decided to investigate wider sports culture to see if such practice was widespread.
UB Sport have a zero tolerance policy towards such practices. However, a survey carried out by Redbrick with 250 responses showed that 60% of people felt that initiations and ‘welcome drinks’ do have a place in team club culture, perhaps indicating that the problem is inbuilt and that UB Sport can only do so much.
Redbrick has found that rumours about sport initiations are prevalent among the student body, with interviews suggesting there is a belief that some sports carry out severe initiations. A member of women’s basketball said ‘I’ve heard that the bigger clubs' initiations are a lot more intense.’ Another student said that ‘stories from my housemate on initiations put me off joining’ any sport.
A campus-wide rumour that several individuals told Redbrick was in reference to netball. The rumour suggests that they made ‘freshers strip naked, sit on newspaper and watch porn’, with the member most visibly aroused facing a punishment. Another student remarked ‘it seems like everyone knows about that’. Redbrick approached a former member of netball, who dismissed these claims, saying that whilst they hosted welcome drinks and it was a ‘messy night’, there was nothing comparable to the nature of the rumours surrounding the club. Similarly, a member of rugby union said that ‘the outside perception of rugby - that it’s disgusting, unfair and bullying - isn’t true’.
Redbrick’s survey found that 46.6% of respondents had been discouraged from joining a sport due to the supposed ritual of ‘welcome drinks’ or initiations. Whilst the majority, 50.4%, said that they had not been put off, the perception that ‘some sports have awful initiations’ and consideration of ‘how bad they were rumoured to be’ is influencing a significant proportion of students.
Redbrick investigated the sports culture at UoB by interviewing members of various sports teams to see what their experience had been like.
Many of those that Redbrick spoke to highlighted the prevalence of alcohol within team initiations and socialising. A member of women’s hockey described how their ‘second initiation is called L plates, and its where they first get you on Frosty Jacks’, a 7.5% cider. ‘You have to turn up with two litres.’ ‘No one remembers their L plates night’, but ‘the seniors are on the ball with’ drunk freshers, knowing how to handle situations ‘because they’ve been through it’, with ‘at least one senior from each team’ taking ‘freshers home [from sports night] every week’. According to this member, ‘after L plates, the seniors know how much the freshers can take...so they don’t push them’ as much after. On men’s hockey, she said ‘I don’t know much about the boys but I do know they make them drink as much as possible until they throw up’.
“No one remembers their L plates night.
A member of rugby union also told Redbrick about the encouragement to drink. ‘Freshers are always asked to bring Frosty Jacks, partly because it’s not very nice but also because it’s pretty cheap - it’s not fair to make people spend too much money’. Senior members ‘will tell them to bring three litres and there are punishments if they don’t... they’ll usually just be told to down a few pints or drink something else alcoholic’.
Other rugby union drinking initiation-style socials described to Redbrick included a night called ‘The Lashes’ which is ‘about downing as many pints as possible, with players getting more ‘runs’ if they do it naked’. ‘I’d say freshers do definitely end up doing most of the drinking. It’s an hour and a half of solid drinking.’
Other teams also talked about drinking as part of their initiations, with a member of women’s basketball saying that their initiations began with ‘drinking games by the sports pitches’, but people weren’t ‘particularly forced to do anything they didn’t want to’. A member of cheerleading similarly described how members drink ‘as much or as little’ as they want whilst playing drinking games like VK races and beer pong. This more relaxed approach to drinking was echoed by men’s basketball, with a member telling Redbrick ‘you don’t have to drink, we have so many non-drinkers’. ‘Those that drink will drink what they’re told to, but if there is an issue then they can say no, we wouldn’t force it.’ This was echoed by a korfball member who said ‘there is an expectation to drink but not pressure to drink in excess. We wouldn’t encourage someone who couldn’t handle their drink’. Cool Runnings also said that whilst ‘there was some encouragement to drink... they were not forced’, instead they played ‘drinking games that you didn’t have to participate in if you didn’t want to’.
Drinking also plays a part throughout the year, with many sports teams socialising every week for Sports Night held at the Guild, or sometimes ‘On Tour’. A member of football said that sports night ‘is probably more rowdy than other nights, but at the same time, you are still representing, not only your uni, but also your team, and so you need to be respectful’ adding that ‘rowdy’ behaviour happens on other nights out too.
“More rowdy than other nights, but at the same time, you are still representing, not only your uni, but also your team
A former member of the Joe’s Bar team shared her experience with Redbrick telling us ‘I’ve had VK bottles thrown at me, been called a bitch multiple times for not serving quickly enough, and somebody once told me to go die for the same reason’. However, she also said that ‘working a sports night is not always bad’ and that ‘sports night is actually better than working at Fab’, the student night at the Guild held every Saturday. Another former member of student staff deemed the post-Sports Night clean up to be the worst thing, claiming that ‘if those at Sports Night had to clean up the mess that they make the next morning, there would be a huge shift in the behaviour that is shown. The building is caked in empty VKs and it seems like students piss on everything in sight’.
However, a member of staff at the S’Oak, where rugby union hold many of their pres before sports night, said that despite the reputation of rugby and ‘apart from the gross stuff with them being sick in buckets, the weirdest thing is how polite they are and they all clear their tables and bring the glasses up when they're done.’
Besides drinking in initiations, those that spoke to Redbrick about initiations also described the various physical elements to the trials, with a hockey player stating that during ‘their fresher trials, after selections, they get covered in fake tan and fish oil’. One member of hockey also described how ‘apparently a senior player spat in their [a fresher’s] drink and made them drink it’, something that was apparently reported. An extreme story reported to Redbrick regarding physical tasks came from one of the footballers we interviewed, who claimed that he ‘had to piss myself or be pissed on’.
“Apart from the gross stuff with them being sick in buckets, the weirdest thing is how polite they are
Other examples of the physical side of initiations came from men’s basketball, who described how they ‘got drafted as an NBA team, like ‘Clippers’ for example’ who then ‘had to shave an eyebrow’ but one boy went further when he ‘volunteered to have his head shaved’. Volunteering to go the extra mile in such rituals was not unique. One student told Redbrick that they had been told by a rugby fresher that he’d willingly volunteered, without influence from older players, to set alight a firework from his bottom during a pre-drinks, consequently suffering from burns. Although this incident was apparently without peer pressure, one sports member said they’d been ‘made to kiss someone I didn’t want to and didn’t know’ but ‘didn’t feel I could say no’. Another footballer that Redbrick spoke to said they’d been forced to do the bleep test and shot in the head with a BB gun from close range. These more extreme initiations have apparently resulted in punishment in the past, with a student telling Redbrick that one sport had their ‘5th team cut’ and has not been ‘able to go on tour for two years because freshers were made to jump in a pool naked and drunk’, consequently running across campus naked.
Some sports opt for less physical non-drinking related initiation tasks, with a member of lacrosse describing how they were required to write and recite a poem about their love of the sport and a member of History netball describing how they had to sing a song in front of seniors. Rugby union apparently also run a social called ‘UBRFC’s Got Talent’, where ‘all the first years have to present an act... The weirder the better’, although drinking still plays a role, with members achieving ‘more points for taking all your clothes off and downing lots of pints’. Second and third years take part in this social too, also presenting an act.
“Their fresher trials, after selections, they get covered in fake tan and fish oil
Redbrick has also found that food-based initiations are common place within sports teams. One aspect of hockey initiations was alleged to require having ‘fish guts put in your mouth’ as well as having ‘sick put in your hair’ as part of what was called ‘fresher hop’. This member of hockey described the event as ‘quite scary because we were in dark rooms just getting shouted at.’ A similar initiation was apparently carried out by men’s football, with a member suggesting they were encouraged to down a bottle of wine in five minutes before eating dog food which resulted in many throwing up. Cheerleaders apparently have ‘different stations’ of games or challenges to complete, with some involving cornflakes in bowls of cider and vodka gummy bears and another where canned cream was squirted on their faces while others threw wotsits at them, trying to make them stick.
Rugby union boys, on ‘babies night’ have similar eating tasks, ‘essentially all the seniors can bring baby food and go around spoon-feeding the freshers. It’s pretty grim, all things you don’t really want to eat, like pilchards from the tin and milk with a few bits mixed in or even some hot chillies.’
Members of both men’s basketball and women’s lacrosse encouraged members to eat things such as onions or horseradish. A male basketballer said they were ‘spoon-fed horseradish’. Women’s lacrosse apparently encouraged their freshers to drink ‘shit mix’, a concoction of liquids found in the fridge, which while not alcoholic were designed to be disgusting.
“All the seniors can bring baby food and go around spoon-feeding the freshers. It’s pretty grim
Some individuals that Redbrick spoke to highlighted that initiations were not something their clubs practised, with Cool Runnings, BrumSurf, korfball and dodgeball all saying they did not run initiations. A member of Cool Runnings said ‘I didn’t experience any form of initiations.’ Similarly, a member of Brumsurf, a society, not an affiliated UB Sport, claimed that they didn’t do initiations in favour of ‘chill pres’ as they ‘think initiations can be kinda peak for some freshers... it’s a sexy chilled out surf vibe thing I guess.’
Of those teams that do participate in initiations or ‘welcome drinks’, Redbrick spoke to some members who missed their initiations in women’s lacrosse, netball, and rowing, but each told us that they did not face any backlash for doing so. A rower told Redbrick that ‘they encouraged everyone to go but nothing happened because I missed it.’ The lacrosse player was clear to emphasise that she did not think attendance was essential as ‘it was only one night and I think as long as you go to other sports nights then you’ll still feel part of the team’.
A member of rugby union said that they ‘have what we call "The Big Four"’. Continuing, he said that these are ‘the only four socials that you have to turn up to - by that I mean that if you’ve been going to any of the socials, these four are the ones that are compulsory.’
He added that ‘some members of the club choose not to go’ but ‘the overwhelming majority do attend these four’, describing the four socials as ‘a rite of passage to be in the club.’ Acknowledging that ‘if you really won’t do anything [at socials] you’ll definitely start to get exiled a bit’, he added that ‘that’s just at socials’ and that ‘not going to socials definitely won’t affect the main part of the club - that is playing rugby.’ ‘No one would stop someone playing rugby because they don’t want to socialise or don’t enjoy that aspect of socials.’
Most people reiterated the idea that attendance at Sports Night, if not at initiations, aided a feeling of inclusion within a club. Out of the respondents to Redbrick’s survey, 40.3% believed that sports night attendance was essential. Some respondents offered different views, claiming that it is ‘not essential but it definitely helps with bonding’ and ‘it’s really important, but people wouldn’t be excluded for not going.’ One respondent said that personally, ‘I have never been and do feel left out for not doing so, but at the same time there are lots of people on the team who don’t go.’
As Redbrick’s survey demonstrated, the majority of students feel there is a place for the culture within sports and many people that Redbrick spoke to emphasised just how much they enjoyed the social aspect of their sport experience.
A member of dodgeball told Redbrick that although they don’t do initiations, they do attend sports night and said that she thought ‘the social aspect is very enjoyable and important. Dodgeball is a relatively small club which means we can all go on nights out together and get to know each other better.’ Similarly, a korfball member said that ‘attending sports night is important to become part of the team.’ She added that ‘a lot of people will come to pre-drinks but not drink if they aren’t coming out, [because] attending the social is more important than the drinking itself’.
One member of men’s football said that although you ‘dread [initiations and pres] a bit’ as a fresher, ‘it’s just kind of funny’ when you get there and helps you to bond. He added that you probably would feel excluded if you didn’t take part, expressing that ‘there are some lads that probably struggle with it more than others’ but added that ‘socials are only a small side of it, we train three times a week.’
“I have never been and do feel left out for not doing so, but at the same time there are lots of people on the team who don’t go
A former cheerleader emphasised that the initiations and socials were important because they are joint with the American football team, helping to build a cross-team relationship which was vital when attending big games throughout the year. She argued that it was ‘more to build a good relationship within the team rather than to do horrible things’.
One member of women’s hockey that we spoke to said that while they often had people who dropped out each year or found excuses not to go to pres and just play she said, ‘I still miss my fresher year, I would do it again in a heartbeat.’ She went on to say that while the first two hours are of getting drunk and hierarchy, ‘the last hour is just like being with friends, and the night out is too. Once you’re at Sports Night it isn’t like “fresher do this,” you’re friends.’ She also said that you would be ‘massively’ left out if you did not attend as ‘everyone talks and jokes about it.’ When asked if she thought that extreme initiations should be stopped she said ‘no’ because it ‘makes you closer to your freshers and makes you understand the hierarchy’ adding that ‘stopping it would ruin the ethos’.
This view was echoed in rugby union, with a member claiming that ‘the freshers enjoy bonding together through things like initiations and everyone supports each other.’ He said that ‘you can see the friendship on the pitch too, all of the socials make a very close-knit group of people which definitely is vital to having a good team.’ He even claimed that ‘as a senior myself, I know plenty of us who’ve said they miss the fun of being told what to do - they wish they could go through it all again.’ Dismissing the idea that the initiations are extreme, he said ‘if they were that bad, surely we’d get complaints every week?’ That they don’t get complaints ‘shows that the socials are working on the inside for the people going to them’. Apparently, most complaints over sports socials tend to come from parents rather than the students themselves.
“You can see the friendship on the pitch too, all of the socials make a very close-knit group of people which definitely is vital to having a good team
Whilst this current member of rugby union defends the practice of initiations, a former UoB rugby union social secretary and cricket club captain has reflected on his experience less favourably. Chris Hemmings’ book, Be a Man, suggests that a culture of toxic masculinity feeds the sports culture that he experienced within teams. He told Redbrick that his initiation ‘lasted 12 months, there wasn’t one specific occasion. It was relentless. By the time I was social sec in my second year I’d had enough and was embarrassed by it all.’
He also wrote an article for the Mirror, claiming that, ‘it was always about proving something to the group. My ability to drink more than the other, to have more sex or be more outrageous.’
Hemmings claims that toxic masculinity perpetuates this culture, citing an example when he was forced to tip a drink over a friend who was on her way to a party, prompting chanting, laughing and high-fiving at her expense.
Hemmings was so ashamed by that afternoon that he did not speak to her until his second year when she told him that not only was she annoyed at him for ruining her clothes but also that the incident left her feeling degraded as she was mocked by a room full of lads who had basically just ‘attacked’ her.
He went on to say that ‘not only did we share naked videos of the women our club mates had slept with and start fights with anyone who dared to cross us, we did it in the full knowledge that we could act with an almost utter impunity towards everyone else on campus.’
However, Hemming’s experiences date back almost a decade, and do not reflect the experience of rugby described to Redbrick by current members. Another student shared an anecdote with Redbrick that showed almost the opposite of Hemming’s experience, as her friend in rugby was not allowed to talk to her or her friends before a certain hour on a sports night, because they were girls.
The University of Birmingham is not unique in witnessing initiations within sports. Reports of initiations from various universities have made national news in recent years. Most recently it came to light that rugby freshers at the University of Manchester were made to apple bob with dead rats in initiations at the start of this academic year. Manchester gave a statement to the Tab regarding these incidents saying, ‘The University and students have worked hard in recent years to make all of our sports teams inclusive and our policies, which all teams must agree to, specifically ban initiation ceremonies. If we find out about such incidents we would take serious action against the club and organisers.’ Like the University of Birmingham, Manchester has a strong stand on such exploits.
“The University and students have worked hard in recent years to make all of our sports teams inclusive
According to an article in their student newspaper, The Boar, Warwick University allow for some form of welcome drinks that follow guidelines to make sure they are inclusive, non-threatening and safe, requiring teams to fill out ‘a risk assessment and a plan of the night’s events in order for the initiation to occur’ and have two sober members present. Yet footage emerged of an initiation that saw students half-naked being shouted at to perform certain tasks by masked men. The university released a statement saying that it was investigating the issue with the student union and that it would take appropriate action.
One of the most shocking incidents of sports initiations happened in 2008 at the University of Gloucestershire where students were made to wear plastic bags over their heads and take orders from a fellow student dressed as a Nazi. They were made to throw up into a bag and walk down a residential street. Understandably this received backlash from the media due to its political insensitivity and extremity. The university said that disciplinary action would be taken once students could be identified from the footage.
A student from Liverpool John Moores University told Newsbeat about the initiations that he had to go through, speaking of how they ‘were stripped down in the changing rooms and made to get in penis size order’ before playing ‘rugby with a raw chicken.’ They then proceeded to ‘put a piece of tissue paper between our [bum] cheeks. They’d set it alight and before we could take it out we’d have to finish a can of beer.’ However the student was clear to emphasise that it was a benefit on the field as ‘you were willing to go the extra mile for your team-mates’.
Though nothing equivalent has reportedly happened in Birmingham, such events have encouraged most universities to take a zero tolerance stance to any sort of initiation.
Clearly, the practice of initiations within universities is not isolated to the University of Birmingham, suggesting that it is indicative of a wider issue within sport. Indeed, incidents of hazing or involving excessive alcohol consumption at the national level has made news in the past. Former England cricket captain Freddie Flintoff’s pedalo scandal in 2007 is perhaps the most famous of these incidents, with the player receiving a ban following an eight-hour drinking binge.
Mel Sterland, former Sheffield Wednesday defender, claimed that when there were new signings he would ‘get a really hard toilet brush, shove it in their buttocks and twirl it around.’ Chris Ashton, a rugby player who has represented England, once claimed that the ability to drink at least 21 alcoholic beverages in one go was an essential if you wanted to play for England.
The RFU, the English governing body for rugby, have previously stated that the precedent of hazing and excessive drinking is ‘totally unacceptable and there’s no place for it in our game’ but emphasised that is not ‘unique to rugby but that’s where we’ve got to focus.’
“Get a really hard toilet brush, shove it in their buttocks and twirl it around
Team club culture is clearly present on all levels of sporting activities and is not just limited to universities or specifically UoB.
UB Sport have a zero tolerance policy for any kind of welcome drinks, initiations, hazing, or peer pressure of any sorts. UB Sport state that social activity should not be a requirement for membership of a club or team.
Despite this, events like these have still taken place at the University of Birmingham. Redbrick met with UB Sport, who outlined their approach to the culture of initiations in sports.
UB Sport acknowledged that zero tolerance policies do not work without education to inform clubs why these policies are in place. They work to educate club committee members throughout the year as to why initiations or hazing of any sort is not tolerated.
Before running for committee positions, club members have the opportunity to attend a prospective committee meeting, where the social events policy, alongside other responsibilities of the committee, is made clear. Once new committees have been elected, they are invited to attend Club Conference, a mandatory two day training event held in the last week of term three, with sessions on welfare, social responsibility, and workshops by the Not On campaign ambassadors. The social responsibility session is designed to create a wider understanding of the zero tolerance policy; in the past this has been delivered in ‘shock tactic’ style, discussing past events at other universities where initiations have resulted in tragedy. This has been revised, now being delivered by the Sports Officer to create a peer-to-peer atmosphere, rather than being lectured by a member of staff.
UB Sport back up this message with material on the Club Development Canvas page, which includes a declaration signed by every member of committee that covers social events policy, financial responsibility, sportswear, and general responsibilities. If committee members do not sign, then they are not recognised by UB Sport, cannot use the role for the Personal Skills Award, and it will not appear on their transcript. Throughout the year, clubs attend development meetings, acting as another opportunity for UB Sport to address any concerns directly with clubs.
UB Sport has a policy of imposing sanctions on clubs or teams found to be participating in any form of initiations or hazing. This can range from individual or club probations, through to club-wide sanctions including being banned from sports night, sports ball or sports awards, or even being removed from BUCS. UBSport also work closely with Student Conduct to investigate and provide support to people who do report any experience of peer-pressure.
The department wants to ensure that sports are inclusive and welcoming, and encourage wide participation at all levels in the many clubs and teams at UoB.
However, a former social secretary of a sport told Redbrick that they had not attended Club Conference nor ever read the social events policy, saying ‘I didn't read it at all. We got sent stuff but I didn't read it.’ Another social secretary told us they believed UB Sport would sanction those that did not attend Club Conference.
Helena Bailey, Sports Officer, told Redbrick that, 'This year I have been working hard with Henny, the welfare officer, around mental health and welfare. I think this is very important within the sports culture and this is why I am hoping that this year every club will have a Welfare position appointed within the committee. This position would be supported by the Guild and receive training before the year starts. Hopefully this will make sure clubs are regarding the welfare of their members and thinking more carefully when it comes to socials and ‘welcome drinks’ or ‘initiations’. Socials are fun and a great time for teams and clubs to bond. Its important that all members have the opportunity to have a good time with in their sports without having to worry that their health or wellbeing.'
When asked if a zero tolerance policy was appropriate, a member of men’s football said ‘No, because it’s [initiations] more or less ingrained in sports culture and sports teams, because people enjoy it. I guess its to cover the university’s back’, so that if anything happened ‘they aren’t liable for it.’
“I agree with the idea of initiations. It unifies the club and I look back and laugh at my own experiences
However, a former social secretary told Redbrick that a policy of allowing approved initiations might work but ‘it would ruin the night and I don’t think many clubs would follow it. It would ruin the ethos [of the club]’.
Despite the zero tolerance stance of UB Sport, a member of men’s rugby argued for the practice of hazing, saying ‘I agree with the idea of initiations. It unifies the club and I look back and laugh at my own experiences’. ‘They’re all in good spirit and no-one is out there trying to bully anyone or harm anyone. It’s just a culture that’s been running down the club for decades and decades’.
Redbrick’s survey would suggest that students would speak up if they felt adversely affected by issues in sports, with 39.9% saying they would speak up on welfare issues, and a further 33 people identifying someone that they would turn to.
Furthermore, students are given a two-week grace period to experience every aspect of the sport and after this period UB Sport told Redbrick that most requests for refunds were based on injury or timetable clashes, rather than social activities.
The stance taken by UB Sport, along with many other universities and national sports governing bodies is at odds with many of those that participate in sports. Although, some say that the social aspect of sports would deter them from joining a sport, 60% of respondents to Redbrick’s survey did believe that initiations held a place in club culture. Furthermore, many individuals personally defended the culture. This appears to be inherent in sports, making it difficult for organisations like UB Sport to tackle, despite their extensive efforts.