By Bethany Dawson
Trigger warning: this article contains content about sexual assault.
A night out at the University of Surrey Students’ Union’s nightclub, Rubix, is hardly complete if you do not find yourself stuck behind a crowd of intimidating sportsmen, clad in a shirt and tie as though Rubix is about to suddenly flourish into a VK-fuelled, sleazy Ritz. The predatory, alcohol-drenched, pack mentality that you can’t ignore when fighting through the over-populated dance floor is just one insight into the world of toxic cultures within the University, or more specifically, university sports.
For some, university sports teams are a hub for camaraderie and friendship, a fun opportunity for sportsmanship, for exercise, and one more way to get oddly shaped bruises. It should be accessible, it should be open to all people, and it should be a happy accompaniment to university life, but that is simply not the case for all students.
An analysis of the demographics within Team Surrey – the University’s official sports team – show that it is less than representative, as clubs are made up of 79% white people, 12% Asian people, and 3% black people, whilst the University is 62% white and 38% BAME. With these figures in mind, we have to consider why representation in Team Surrey is so low. Unfortunately, not all captains of sports teams within Team Surrey are wholly attune to the need to have more diverse teams. When asked about diversity, the Rugby Team did not come laden with plans to diversify their team, nor a seemingly pressing dedication to do so. A shrug of their shoulders and a comment that rugby is typically a sport played by boys from private or grammar school backgrounds, thus there is little to be helped, constituted the bulk of their argument around this issue.
In a discussion about the subject of diversity within Team Surrey, one student who tried for the football team, who played semi-professionally outside of university, did not make the team at any level. The student in question, who doesn’t drink for personal, religious, or cultural reasons, suggested that that was a significant aspect of his rejection from the team. In a similar discussion with another student, they recalled this comment from their trials at the football team:
“I was told not to speak Greek at the football trial, and that “we only speak fucking English here”. He didn’t pick me or my friend.”
This clearly shows that the lack of diversity within Team Surrey isn’t just an issue that can be explained by a merit-based system or a lack of diversity within the University of Surrey as a whole. Rather, this is an issue of structural racism within the club, somewhat enforced by, although not wholly due to, the ever-presence of alcohol within Team Surrey.
“I think [the alcohol is such commonplace within sports because of] Western culture. From the age of zero we see drinking and sport together on the biggest stages. Premier league? Spray champagne. Bundesliga? Let’s pour massive beers over each other. [I’m] not sure if you watched the cricket World Cup final England won but an athlete for religious reasons had to stand to the side of the podium as they were spraying alcohol. Wherever you look when sport is being celebrated you see sportsmen and women drinking.”
Alcohol holds a prime place on sports’ celebratory mantlepiece, as suggested in the above quote from Dec Greaves, Vice President of Athletics and Cross Country. Within sports generally, and within Team Surrey specifically, this results in blockages against diversity. For example, the omnipresence of alcohol places social barricades to university athletes who do not drink, whether for cultural, religious, or medical reasons. When Western sporting culture holds the central viewing platform as the pub, it is not surprising that it is reflected in Team Surrey.
The related issues of alcohol being the centerpiece of sports culture, and of the lack of diversity within sports, are accounted for everyday of the year, but are truly highlighted on tour: the annual opportunity for Team Surrey sports teams to drink to oblivion, display their range of drinking games, and possibly play some sports. Of course, it’s not all Team Surrey players who go on tour; it’s dependent on what club you play for, your interest in alcohol-based activities, and your financial standing. In other words, tour is difficult to attend with your team if you’re not in possession of a well-exercised liver or a supportive wallet.
“It was crazy. It was definitely 90% drinking and socialising-focused and 10% sport-focused. Some of the lads didn’t make it to the football as they had been out the night before.”
“There are a lot of tour stories. And none really relate to the playing sport aspect of a tour” – Quotes from someone who was part of their university football team 10 years ago, showing little change to the culture.
Regularly, sports teams return from tour not only with hangovers and nickname-clad tops, but also with a substantial fine for damages and poor behaviour. This year’s tour however, more than its predecessors, should prompt a critical evaluation of the culture within Team Surrey, which not only enforces the aforementioned racist structures, but also harbours abhorrent sexist attitudes and practices.
This year, the Team Surrey mens’ football team came back from tour not only with an alcohol-induced headache, but also a number of sexual assault allegations against them. Repercussions for misconducts range from unruly behaviour to sexual assault; leading to all 52 representatives of the team from tour being suspended from Team Surrey. Interestingly, roughly 18 of said attendees were, reportedly, not sportsmen of Men’s Football, but rather attended tour solely for the ethanol-based aspects of the venture. The football team’s performance on tour was one not of sportsmanship, but rather a display of the toxic culture within sports teams; exacerbated by a combination of alcohol, exclusion, and the presence of a “boys will be boys” mentality. None of these factors are new to the world of university sports teams. Two people – a football player for their University ten years ago and a rugby player for their University over thirty years ago – acknowledged that their experience on their respective teams was similarly permeated by drunken bonding experiences, either hosted within their SU or abroad on tour, and the same was recognised by current Team Surrey sportsmen.
The University’s and the Students’ Union’s handling of the cases, and more specifically the decision to ban the 52 representatives from tour from Team Surrey, has been widely contested by said representatives, with some of the students in question and their families labelling the punishments as being in violation of the Human Rights Act. Such disdain for the decision – the decision to reprimand a group for sexual misconduct and assault – is an indication of just how long such behaviour has avoided disclosure and condemnation. When young men are accused of sexual assault at university, especially young men with valued sporting potential, the response has historically been to excuse their actions in order to preserve their bright futures; and this case is no different. Parents of the accused men have emailed high ranking Union staff telling them that the repercussions endured by the boys are “inhumane”, “insulting”, and “in breach of the [Union’s] duty of care”. There was no comment made about the Union’s, the University’s, or even the sportsmen’s duty of care to their fellow students who attended tour, who left having been sexually assaulted. These reactions represent a wholly overdue nod to the removal of the unwritten ‘boys will be boys’ policy, a change too painful for some to endure.
Oftentimes, alcohol is given the blame for toxic cultures within sports teams, be that an explanation for rugby initiation events at the University of Bath – which included, but were not limited to, being urinated on and sprinkling chilli on one’s penis – or at the rugby team at the University of Manchester, where you may find yourself fetching a dead rat with your teeth out of a bucket of cider. It was again used as an excuse for what happened on the Team Surrey tour, where, apparently, one jager bomb too many is a valid alibi for sexual assault. After all, drunken sportsmen will be drunken sportsmen.
Granted, a significant amount of the penalised behaviour occurred under the influence of alcohol, with one such example being a game in which some of the gentlemen in question competed to see who could ‘engage’ with the most girls; such engagements were not sought with the consent of the girls who were preyed upon. As aforesaid, this event, and many more which resulted in sexual assault cases against individual members of the team, occurred with the acting parties behaving under the influence of alcohol, which they tried to frame as both an explanation and an excuse: an excuse that is accepted too often. The acceptance of a fistful of VKs being a valid reason for abhorrent behaviour – be that sexual assault, physical assault, or, as it also happened on tour, urinating in someone’s shoes – ignores the structural reasons for the toxicity within Team Surrey. It is not just based on how large someone’s tab might be at Hari’s Bar, but is interwoven into a cocktail of the elitism within university sports, the sexism and toxic masculinity that has excluded large groups of women and the LGBTQ+ community from engaging in sports, and the racism that excluded the majority of BAME students and rejects communities of students who do not engage in Western features of sport culture, such as excessive drinking. The scandal of the football team’s actions on tour, and the wider issue of diversity within Team Surrey, is an accurate depiction of the multifaceted nature of toxicity: that it is not just fed by alcohol, but is also a deep-seated structural problem.
Unfortunately, the sexist culture within Team Surrey is not neatly contained to tour. Casting a glance back to the home ground of Rubix, we can see such sexist and obstructive structures in action on club nights in Rugby Corner. The name gives it too much credence, as though it is a well established watering hole for the esteemed sportsmen of the University of Surrey. Rather, it is a corner of the dancefloor – helpfully positioned in front of the only lift that can get someone to the dancefloor – where a herd of rugby players and their friends search for a mate who passes through their territory. The co-captain of rugby stated that Rugby Corner should not be seen as problematic. Any attempts I made to explain the ways in which the gaggle of gentlemen can be intimidating or unnerving fell short of successful.
The exclusionary, sexist and discriminatory culture that has permeated Team Surrey, and the wider unit of university sports, is often regarded with fatalistic attitudes that lead to acceptance, and therefore little resistance to such toxicity. What do you do when the rejected sportsmen feel defeated, and when those who are welcomed into teams benefit from – and possibly even enjoy – toxic, alcohol-centric, sexist, and racist cultures within their teams? From personal experience, I can say that an angry comment, or a swat of a leering hand, in Rubix when battling through swades of sportsmen fueled by testosterone and alcohol is not enough to change the culture.
The prevalence of the toxicity within Team Surrey is due to an active lack of diversity within teams and in a pervasive sexism that has led to a number of sexual assaults within a four-night period. This is an issue of institutionalised racism, sexism and classism, which crowns the white, middle-class players – those who were most likely to have come from grammar or private schools, with the best sporting facilities and opportunities – as the best. It is worth noting that it is not all sportsmen, or sportspeople, who are responsible for the prevalence of such cultures. However, it is important to encourage those that do not uphold such toxic values to actively try and dismantle them when they come in contact with them.
The University of Surrey’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy fell short in the response to events such as those that occurred on tour, where the most severe punishment for perpetrators was to be banned from graduation. Granted, the pervasive influence of toxic masculinity, sexism, racism, and overall inaccessibility of Team Surrey cannot be solved with the snapping of policy-creating fingers: but we the student body need more than a few posters around University that detail how to report a sexual assault. We need change from all corners of the University, from Senior Management to the students. We must stop mollycoddling the sporting traditions upheld by the notion that ‘boys will be boys’, and actively work to change the culture within Team Surrey and beyond.
Team Surrey Football were contacted to comment on this piece, however they did not provide a response.
With thanks to Amar Sohanpal and Ruth Carlson for their research and work that has made the provision of information within this article possible.
Bethany Dawson is a Placement year Politics and Sociology student at the University of Surrey.