Charlotte Kissick-Jones and Marion Guerbet are the Clandestine’s first ever Current Events Reporters. They have written this piece after attending the first sports night of this academic year. Their findings point to the fundamental flaws in the structures of sports societies at KCL and throughout the UK.
The KCLSU Welcome Fair marked the end of a busy Freshers’ Week for many new and returning students at King’s, with many eager to get involved with new clubs and societies. In the Barbican Centre, sports clubs were on the front line to recruit Freshers and returning students alike: welcome barbecues, taster sessions, trials, and the first sports night of the year were advertised. Most famous of these advertised events being the sports tours. It is common knowledge that most university sports teams are characterised by heavy drinking and questionable ‘integration’ traditions: such events are seen as rites of passage, a gateway to team unity.
Some freshers might be put off by tales of disgusting tasks and punishment given during those event. Rugby is one of the most ‘hardcore’ sports, with the Telegraph reporting such rites as “Rubbing chilli powder into private parts, fishing dead rats out of buckets of cider with players’ teeth and having vomit hurled at new team recruits” . Student forum The Student Room allows students to share their disappointment over such conducts: a student from a Rugby 1st team describes “packing it in a couple of months in”, saying:
“The culture is something I despised. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play for the uni or a club but they asked me to play so I just went along with it. If you’re in your first year or a new player, you’re basically expected to suck up to the older guys. We had forfeits at training if we missed a social or whatever. The initiation was the final straw for me, … we were expected to drink whatever they asked us to and I’m not talking alcohol. [They also made us] strip naked whilst they dragged our knees across the street.”
Another student shared about how initiation and drink-heavy culture impacted overall enjoyment and practice of the sport:
“I play rugby so went along to training in the second week or whatever, thinking it’d be quite professional and serious because they were in the top division but that wasn’t the case. They hassled you to go to the ‘socials’ every week, saying that it was compulsory and we had an initiation as well that was disgraceful. … It really annoyed me because that’s not what rugby is about. Why should playing sport mean you have to go to every single social and be hassled for not? What if you just wanna play rugby? Some enjoy it but there’s others who don’t, loads of lads who play for my local club gave uni rugby a miss for this exact reason.”
With sports team advertised by Student Unions as good way to integrate and meet friends, it seems unacceptable that the overwhelming experience tends to be one of pressure and unhealthy hierarchies that don’t promote wellbeing and true integration.
However, what is integration if not the modern equivalent of coming of age ceremonies? And what about club traditions? Some argue that the memories made during Fresher rituals are what truly bonds a team, that they provide memories for years later. In an Independent article, a former university student writes:
“Initiation is the compulsory club event; it is what bonds members together. We’ve all done it, and year in and out new freshers come along to join the circle. As a result it’s something that now, as finalists, we refer to often.”
This seems to be an idyllic picture, the way things should be done across the board: harmless, cooperative fun. But can it really be fun and inclusive if it’s ‘compulsory’?
For Kayleigh Best, KCLBC’s Fresher Vice-Captain, Fresher integration rituals “can be great for bonding but shouldn’t be enforced”. Indeed, each individual has a different comfort zone and what might seem regular to confident and already integrated members might not be for a confused fresher. Kayleigh especially emphasised the need to provide care before, during, and after such rituals – making sure no one is left to fend for their own especially with alcohol involved. Ultimately, integration is about inclusivity and feeling comfortable as part of a new club, not vulnerability and fear of remaining unintegrated if not taking part or uninterested in mainstream drinking culture. One way to ensure Freshers feel comfortable could be to prioritise “small scale socials over club nights” during the first weeks of term, to encourage meaningful bonding and taking care of other team mates.
As integration events occur during the first months of term, they mostly reflect the values promoted by the club and create patterns of behaviour repeated by future committee and influential members. Making sure integration is based on club values of integration, inclusion, and freedom of choice is key in preventing many issues pervasive within clubs, such as disrespectful behaviour towards others or toxic masculinity amongst others.
University sports offer the opportunity to meet like-minded people, relieve academic stress and socialise within a supportive community. However, the reality of this is that there is underlying enhancement of misogynistic feelings and stereotypes within sport. The King’s rugby team’s ban on communicating with women before a certain time on a sport’s night is highlighting of the clear gender separation that faces universities. The emphasis placed on heavy drinking and initiations, or ‘welcome events’ as they are now commonly referred to, provides a safe platform for excuses. Acts of sexual, verbal and emotional harassment are often justified by the influence of alcohol rather than there being a focus on amending the issue in hand.
This brings to light the role of toxic masculinity in sport here at KCL. Many will argue that this phrase is an example of gender stereotypes, but I have no personal doubt that toxic masculinity can be traced to be the root of the problem. The harmful restrictive norms of masculine behaviour include emotional repression and masculine dominance. I was recently at the receiving end of the dangerous phrase ‘boys will be boys’, not only does this contribute to toxic masculinity but also to increasing rape culture. The power of language when adhering to gender roles is widely misjudged. The uncomfortable truth is that along with sexist jokes, gender-specific language and a grope that was ‘just a bit of fun, liven up’ – comes rape. Male dominated sports have often been the breeding ground for toxic masculinity; only when blame is finally taken, and actions take place to amend these mistakes will this toxicity be reduced.
The impact of toxic masculinity cannot be discussed without understanding the effect on men, who are twice as likely to experience physical assault as women. Only through defining the paradigm of what it means to be ‘a man’ can sports culture offer the opportunities we hope for. The expectation for men to ‘get laid’ by a netball woman is restrictive of sexual identity, and the absence of mental and emotional support is paramount to emotional repression. Recent campaigns encouraging men to speak up about mental health issues need to be a focus of sports teams. To be a supportive community there needs to be more discourse on sexuality, mental health and emotional expression. The desperation for men to exert stereotypical masculine traits in order to be accepted within a sports team can no longer be accepted. The authoritative model of traditional masculine must be viewed as what it truly is, a detrimental concept.
My [Charlotte’s] involvement in the women’s rugby team at King’s has allowed me to be empowered through the platform of sport, alongside my teammates. The realisation of personal strength, both physically and mentally, is important to enhance self-worth. Unfortunately, the King’s Fresher’s Fair proved that these positive aspects to the sport were not viewed by many out of my team. Most women that I approached either laughed at me or offered excuses against joining that were centred around personal insecurities and doubt. The sad fact of the matter is that women often do not receive the encouragement to play sports that are not inherently ‘female’. The opportunity to become athletic in a way that is often wrongly labelled ‘masculine’ and at the same time confront gender stereotypes, is an extraordinary experience that many do not experience. The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has been a main focus of the women’s rugby team and other sports team but the response at the King’s Freshers Fair has proven to me that more must be done to teach that sport does not have a gender. Despite the harmful aspects of university sport that I have discussed, my personal experiences have proven the importance of sports teams and other societies in providing an environment of inclusivity and empowerment.
Most of the men at King’s will not have consciously contributed to ‘lad culture’ or emitted toxic masculinity. However, these non-violent men are failing to challenge the actions of other men that promote it.
Instances of sexual harassment during sports nights should be addressed by sports committees, and individuals in positions of power should be setting an example. An encouraging discovery that American football offers mixed gender teams proves that sexist attitudes to sport have not got to the better of everyone just yet. I encourage any women reading to never underestimate themselves; please do not let toxic masculinity or gender roles control your university experience.