They might be drunken, but they're not usually debauched

"Initiation"; The word struck fear in my mind as a fresher, lols as a second year and now as a finalist, having attained the trifecta, I’m feeling reflective.

It has a bad reputation. One English university has in its union policy a clause denoting the prohibition of “initiation” in relation to sports clubs and societies. They prefer “welcome evening”.

Sports club initiations aren’t just about swallowing goldfish, being sick on each other and repackaged bullying. If you Google “university sport initiations UK”, hundreds of horror stories greet you; in the same way “university rugby clubs” don’t look good on paper.

Over the last decade, there have been some tragic accidents at the hands of sports club binge-drinking. Clubs have been fined sizeable chunks of precious union funding, captains sacked and reputations tarnished at the hands of unruly behaviour. Some tales tell of freshers being hung upside down, and that initiation is a rite of passage should you want to represent your university at sport. But I pooh-pooh that; there is no evidence of that at my college.

To brand all sports clubs with the same filthy brush is unfair: it isn’t the big, bad lads club that Hollywood and the sensationalist media make it out to be.

My university hockey club, notably a mixed club, is loving and fair. Amongst the standard cliques and personal friendships, there’s a hierarchy – a committee, finalists, second years and freshers – like anywhere else. You learn early on to shut up if the president is talking, to respect your elders. In the early days of first year, you speak when spoken to – if anyone has remembered your name – and always abide by “International Drinking Rules”. At 18 you’re just a small speck on the university landscape; in a big club, by final year you’ve seen and done a lot.

This end of town, all ceremonies – if you can call Regent’s Canal a royal venue – take place after reading week. It’s late November, for some December, before freshers are put through their paces. Before they, as is traditional in my club, collect random objects on a treasure hunt – library books, newspapers, items of clothes – and complete a series of sober challenges designed to test their mettle. Having ticked everything off, they receive their personalised social shirt for “session” and nights out – returning members get a fresh one – and the formal membership ritual is complete. By this point in the year, many matches have already been played – teams are selected in trials at the beginning of term.

It’s a cult of some kind, and I grant that from the outside it looks strange. But all sports clubs do. Our scene on Wednesday night attracted some attention. A group of tipsy freshers in onesies – this year’s theme was farmers and farmyard animals, completely inoffensively – running about campus duct-taped together (pint glass attached) looking for their next task. Willingly. With a little sass, from some. But it’s a whole heap of fun – there are no serious voices, just a bit of a tease here and there. Everyone is welcome, and everyone is involved.

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. “Remember that time at initiation?” “Well, no I don’t remember…but it was a wicked night.” My sports fresher memories aren’t a series of dare-I-tell-my-Mum stories, but brilliantly funny adventures. They will remain with me for a long time after graduation, and so will my social shirts.