Alcohol, Athletes and Pressure to Drink

Ask any coach or college athletic director and you'll hear concern about alcohol and athletes. Rightfully so. Alcohol and athletics is a dangerous duo associated with negative consequences including hangovers, nausea and vomiting, poor grades in school, arguments, fights, memory loss, driving under the influence and trouble with the law--to say nothing of injuries. Yet, tailgating before football games, quenching thirst at the pub after a team workout and celebrating victories with champagne is perceived as the norm.

College athletes are more likely to drink than non-athletes. Serious recreational runners drink more than their sedentary counterparts. Unfortunately, alcohol is a highly addictive substance and is the most abused drug in the United States, more so than steroids. Prolonged drinking can damage the liver, heart and brain, and result in cirrhosis, pancreatitis, irregular heart beats, stroke and malnutrition. More oral cancer is seen among those who are just moderate drinkers as compared to abstainers.

What Can be Done About This Problem?

To address the problem of alcohol abuse among student-athletes, many college campuses are educating students about social norms--the beliefs about what is normal and expected in social situations. For example, despite popular belief, "everyone" does not drink, nor do "most students" get drunk all the time.

A 1999 survey at Southern Methodist University asked these four questions to students on a Friday about alcohol use on the previous night:

  • Did you drink last night?
  • Did you get drunk last night?
  • What percentage of SMU students do you think drank last night?
  • What percentage of SMU students do you think got drunk last night?
The answers showed major misperceptions about alcohol norms:

  • Only 20 percent of students surveyed reported drinking the previous night yet they believed that over half drank.
  • Only 8 percent reported getting drunk, yet they believed at least one-third got drunk.
  • Of students who drank, most reported consuming only a few drinks per week. Yet they believed most students were drinking 10 to 15 drinks per week.
  • 35 percent reported abstaining from alcohol but very few believed that many of their peers were non-drinkers.

With ongoing social norm education, students will actually change their drinking practices. For example, a three-year social-norm education program targeted Division III athletes in a NY state college. It contributed to a 30 percent drop in both excessive alcohol consumption and the negative consequences of drinking. Among student-athletes with the highest exposure to the program, personal alcohol misuse dropped 50 percent(1). Given that athletes are often role models, this change can have a positive impact on the entire campus and potentially our entire sports society.