No one will ever know exactly what combination of alcoholic drinks Sam Potter consumed on the evening of the 8th of May, 2019. A safe bet would include Guinness, rum and lager, bought by students two or three years older than himself.
When the other people at the University of Gloucestershire rugby club initiation gathering saw him fall asleep against a sofa early in the evening, they assumed he would be fine – despite the fact he was nearly five times over the drink-drive limit. At around 5.30AM the next day, no one could wake him.
Potter was 19. He would not have died from alcohol toxicity had he not been part of the four-hour drinking game.
Potter’s death wasn’t unprecedented; in 2016, Ed Farmer died after an “initiation-style” bar crawl organised by members of Newcastle University’s Agricultural Society. The 20-year-old was part of a group that ordered around 100 triple vodkas in just one bar, and Potter is reported to have drunk alcohol served in a pig’s head at one point in the night. He died in hospital after suffering “unsurvivable” brain damage as a result of cardiac arrest.
Jeremy Farmer, Ed’s father, later called for organisers of initiation events to be expelled, but said he didn’t blame the students or the university for his son’s death. “It’s just a lack of understanding on the university’s part of the problem that they have got,” he said, “and I think it’s been quite a shock to them to understand the seriousness of the problem.”
Following disciplinary investigations, Newcastle University said: “A number of students were found to be in breach of university rules and appropriate individual sanctions were imposed.”
Alcohol-fuelled initiation ceremonies are a time-honoured university tradition, but they have also been responsible for the deaths of multiple people – generally men – in their prime, while they are in a vulnerable state and willing to follow almost any conceivable order.
In the US, 44 states have passed laws banning hazing, the elaborate and often extreme initiation rituals that students have to undertake while joining athletic teams or Greek letter organisations. Unsurprisingly, the leading cause of death during hazings is alcohol poisoning.
In the UK, no such laws exist – but initiations, often for sports societies, feature challenges just as unpleasant as the kind of stuff you might see in a 1990s American teen movie. Take your pick: biting the head off a goldfish, having cooking oil poured into your eyes, apple bobbing for a dead rat – or, in fact, bobbing for bananas, blindfolded, while trying to avoid a floating human shit.
Ben Moles was a fresher at Brunel University London in 2002, and a member of the university’s rugby society during a pre-Christmas night out. “We knew that the guys who were setting the initiation would make it worse than their [own] initiation,” Moles tells me.
First up was a spoonful of Da’ Bomb hot sauce – the stuff that choked out Idris Elba on Hot Ones – before mouthfuls of raw fish, onions, garlic and chilli. Next was a 15-minute game of naked touch rugby, on a mid-December night, with a supermarket chicken for a ball, while older students pelted them with eggs and flour.
After this, they had to do sit-ups and press-ups, again while being pelted with eggs and flour. From there, they ran down a public road – stopping to repeatedly cross a stream with a steep eight-foot embankment – and on to the university bar, where they drank some more and ran into other societies’ Christmas parties, doing a conga (still naked) around each room.
Finally, they ran the kilometre back to the clubhouse – at this point, plenty of people were “revisiting their Christmas dinner” – and the last person back was made to drink a couple more teaspoons of Da Bomb.
At any point, the evening could have taken a morbid turn; Moles says one person was clipped by a car – and drinking your bodyweight before leaping around next to an eight-foot drop is clearly not the smartest idea.
“It’s really easy for people to say things like, ‘Oh, nothing’s gonna happen,’” says Dr Eric Adkins, who has treated multiple students suffering from the effects of drinking at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre. “But then you only have to take care of one kid who dies from alcohol intoxication, you only have to meet one set of parents or one set of siblings that is witnessing and living through this loss, to realise that one is too many.”
According to Vince Mayne, CEO of British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), the number of initiation ceremonies is not necessarily increasing, but their severity may be.
“That’s what hazing is all about, when we look at the definition,” says Hank Nuwer, an expert on initiation rituals and the author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives. “Preserving a status quo no matter how disgusting or potentially devastating that status quo is. ‘The ones before us did it; we get to do it next year.’”
Andrew McKee’s initiation into the University of Surrey rugby team in 1993 involved freshers drinking dirty pints and one student – a second-year who absolutely did not need to do this – trying to drink a pint of piss and vomit. According to McKee, it was the private school students who seemed to drive the initiation behaviours, and this holds up today: it is sports associated with private education – rugby, netball, hockey – that still have the worst reputations, a culture that starts at school itself.
Olisa Ikezue-Clifford was in year 11 when he experienced a rugby initiation on the last night of a US tour with Dulwich College, a school in south London. “The older boys decided what exactly we younger boys had to do,” he says. “Me and another Black boy were told that we had to do a mandingo fight” – a reference to supposed fights between slaves at the behest of their masters in 1800s America, which has been debunked as historical fact, but was spread as a concept by the 1975 blaxploitation film Mandingo.
Ikezue-Clifford and the other young man were oiled up, wearing only boxers, and fought briefly in a hotel room while the rest of the team circled them and watched. “It was all a bit strange,” he says, putting it mildly. (Dulwich’s headmaster reached out to Ikezue-Clifford to apologise “unreservedly”, and the school has said it is “committed to the elimination of discrimination”.)
Annabelle went to Durham University and had anxiety for nights before her initiation into the rowing club. When it came, she was challenged to run to every college bar – for a total distance of around 17 kilometres – where she had to drink a pint of milk, as well as a mix of alcohol shots and fruit juice. She made it to three bars before vomiting (she is lactose intolerant). “You’d be labelled as a bit of a loser if you didn’t go along with it,” she says.
Beyond the obvious, one of the tragedies of initiations is that they prevent people from pursuing something they enjoy. Ben Moles says that the culture at his rugby society stopped some contemporaries from playing the sport. Ikezue-Clifford stopped too. “I’d had enough,” he says. Annabelle quit rowing after a year: “I enjoyed having a few drinks, but I just hated the fact that at every social you felt pressure to do crazier and crazier things.”
Because Sam Potter was concluded to have participated in the initiation ceremony of his own accord, his death was treated as an accident. But everyone I speak to characterises their initiation as something it wasn’t realistically possible to avoid.
“You didn’t want to be the person that was the first to wave the white flag,” says Moles. When I ask Annabelle if leaving was an option, she says: “No. No way. We were totally pressured into it. Everyone was puking – and was encouraged to carry on.” McKee describes the drinking at Surrey as “voluntarily involuntary” (last year, more than 25 years after McKee’s era, Surrey’s student rugby players were filmed initiating people by forcing them to drink urine, eat maggots and take laxatives; the university said it “took swift and robust action following a thorough investigation”).
Hank Nuwer does not agree with the Potter verdict, and believes that initiations shouldn’t be characterised as voluntary. “I’ve been writing about this since 1975, and we’ve stopped calling these accidents in the United States,” he says. “It’s essentially involuntary manslaughter.”
In the 44 US states to have passed relevant laws, the participation of the victim has no bearing on the guilt of the organisers. In some states – Florida, for example – you can be jailed for five years for letting someone die in the way that Potter did. As Nuwer says, “Sam Potter did not die alone.”
Of course, students may be genuinely ignorant of alcohol’s potentially fatal side effects. Dr Eric Adkins says that if someone comes into hospital and has been vomiting, there is a risk that they may die from aspirating on the vomit. Doctors check for a gag reflex, and if the person has none they may be put onto a ventilator in order to breathe properly. If they have already aspirated vomit into their lungs, they may develop pneumonia. If vomiting has caused them to dehydrate, they could develop cardiac arrhythmia.
“It’s become increasingly clear that those types of activities pose significant risk to these students,” he says.
In response to Potter’s death, the University of Gloucestershire took various steps as recommended by a BUCS review. In a statement, the university and students’ union tell VICE: “A new sports culture taskforce has been set up to specifically consider all the issues raised in the report and implement the recommendations, involving sports team captains as well as University and Students’ Union staff and BUCS.”
A director of sport and physical wellbeing has been appointed, and one of their jobs will be to work closely with sports teams and help club captains “welcome new members to their clubs in a safe and positive way”. Initiations are banned, but the statement acknowledges “that more needs to be done to ensure students are aware of this”.
In the US, civil suits have seen the president or treasurer of societies sued, even if they weren’t at the initiation. In March of this year, 20-year-old Stone Foltz died at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Eight current and ex-students are now facing criminal charges, and Foltz’s parents are suing the college fraternity. Foltz’s death was remarkably similar to Sam Potter’s, for which no charges were brought.
There are currently no plans afoot to change the law when it comes to university initiations in the UK – and the National Union of Students has argued that the situation is improving, with a spokesperson saying in 2019, “We know that students are spending less on alcohol, and that’s a clear indicator for us that their focus is changing. I do believe that this culture around pressuring people to drink has changed, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t still there – particularly in some of these older clubs.”
And that's the important point: freshers will always find it difficult not to succumb to intense peer pressure. As McKee says, no matter how difficult the initiation, a student will tend to feel safer as part of a group rather than trying to define themselves individually.
“I think we have to get past some of this,” says Adkins, who adds that it’s important that parents give their children the confidence to say no. “People may chuckle about it and laugh about it later on, but it’s a significant issue. It should be a big eye-opening moment for people to re-examine the choices that they're making.”