The President of Strathclyde Sports Union has vowed to take stronger action against potentially harmful initiation ceremonies.
Maddy Watson has launched a campaign to call full-time on initiations in order to make university sports clubs more inclusive towards new members.
So-called initiations often involve undertaking a series of challenges alongside copious amounts of drinking, and have long been defended as university traditions centred around accepting new members onto the team.
But in recent years national attitudes towards initiations have shifted towards condemnation, accelerated by a series of horror stories from British universities where students were left with long-term effects and, in some cases, even faced prison sentences for their role in such ‘socials’.
And while sports clubs at Strathclyde have not been plagued by controversy on the same level as other universities, Watson believes it is not enough to simply continue to ignore the issue in the hopes that such an extreme scenario does not arise.
She explained: “Hearing about some of the other unis definitely makes me feel better about Strath, but I don’t want to be complacent and think we don’t need to do anything. I want to have a policy in place to stop bad things from happening.
“In the past it’s been very much ‘don’t call it initiations and you’ll be fine’, but this year we’re taking a stronger stance.”
While the initiation stories making national headlines are those involving gruesome rituals and antisocial behaviour, Watson believes even ‘tamer’ initiations can have potentially detrimental effects on students.
“It’s the concept of hidden harm,” she added. “You don’t know what freshers have experienced before they came to uni, you don’t know whether they’ve had mental health problems. They don’t know the harm they could be causing.
“There’s definitely an issue around reporting. There’s this fear that if they grass someone in then there will be consequences.”
As such, Watson has yet to receive any formal complaints about behaviour on such freshers’ socials. But she is taking no chances.
She tells anecdotal evidence of freshers who have felt intimidated or humiliated on socials and have dropped out of sports clubs as a result. Others have skipped socials but continued to train, only to be ostracised by teammates for not taking part in initiations.
For Watson, the issue centres around treating freshers differently to seniors. Upon hearing accounts from other universities of students being called ‘fresher’ instead of their real name, she reiterates that this is “a really common practice”.
Indeed, a well-known practice on Strathclyde socials is for freshers to be ‘cuffed’ to seniors during nights out, a process which Watson describes as “degrading”.
She said: “It’s this whole thing that they have to earn the respect of their seniors and earn their place in the team. Clubs will use the excuse that it’s good bonding, but actually there are studies which say the opposite, that initiations cause feelings of isolation and exclusion.
“To my knowledge there are not extreme practices at Strathclyde, but there are cases at other unis where students have been left traumatised.
“There are certainly problematic clubs – it tends to be more ‘traditional’ sports. You could say the specific problems differ, but the issue is treating freshers differently to seniors.”
With initiations so ingrained in the culture of certain clubs, Watson does not expect change to happen overnight. As her predecessors as Sports Union President will have learned, initiations are notoriously hard to police, with many of the most problematic events taking place at pre-drinks, and with sports clubs careful not to post photographs of potentially incriminating behaviour on social media.
But with the consequences for inappropriate behaviour so high – ranging from monetary sanctions being imposed on clubs to, in extreme cases, individuals facing expulsion from the university – Watson is keen to educate sports clubs on the negative effects of initiations.
To assist with the campaign, Strathclyde Sport is working closely with Scottish Student Sport (SSS) and CHANGES, a training programme exclusively open to sports clubs aiming to better the culture within university sport.
Watson said: “What we want to do is make them understand the risks. There is also a legal element to it, in that if something were to go wrong on any of these socials, it is the club committee and the captain who are liable.
“It’s tricky because a lot of people do enjoy it, but I know that it’s not for everyone. What we want to do is advocate sport for wellbeing and mental health, and initiations goes against that. So we’re trying to do something about it.”
By Rob McLaren