A Study of Alcohol Responsibility Among College Athletes

Abstract

This study examined alcohol related behaviors among college athletes and the impact of a one year, alcohol responsibility intervention program on reported behaviors. A sample of 150 athletes was selected to go through three specific alcohol responsibility intervention programs, funded by an NCAA Choices grant. The interventions involved the establishment of a peer mentoring and counseling program to encourage alcohol responsibility and address behavioral concerns; educational opportunities; and alcohol free socials associated with athletic events. Findings of this study indicated a decrease in problematic issues in two of the six indicator areas examined.

Introduction

Problematic drinking on college campuses remains a significant concern for students in general and a growing concern for athletes in particular (Hingson, Heeren, Winter & Wechsler, 2005). Obviously when drinking behaviors among athletes become problematic, there is the potential to impact competitive performance, academic success and social development. This concern prompted the NCAA to establish the Choices Grants, aimed at combating irresponsible and problematic drinking among athletes. I utilized the funding from this grant to implement a 12 month intervention program on a campus that had been plagued with alcohol related issues among both the athlete and general student population. The intervention program involved peer training and mentoring, educational seminars, and social activities to address irresponsible alcohol behaviors.

Doumas, Turrisi, and Wright (2006) studied 249 college freshmen and found a disturbing prevalence of binge drinking among students and an even greater prevalence among athletes. They found that college athletes consumed an average of 5.07 drinks per weekend, former high school athletes 4.19 and non-athlete students 3.5 drinks per weekend. Thompson and Sherman (2007) further reported that between 1989 and 2005 the number of collegiate student-athletes who reported drinking 10 or more drinks in one sitting during the past 12 months significantly increased. This definition fits the description of problem drinking; however, this definition has been a debatable issue. Hanson (2007) defined problematic drinking in the college as five drinks for males and four drinks for females during one drinking experience. Although some consider this to be the problematic drinking threshold, alcohol experts, Lederman, Stewart, and Travis (2007) pointed out that the size of the drink, the body weight of the drinker, gender, and the length of time during the drinking experience are major factors that should be taken into consideration when defining problem drinking.

Brenner and Swanik (2007) reported the elevated consumption pattern of athletes over non-athletes. They examined the consumption patterns based on NCAA. The NCAA classifies schools into one of 3 categories based on the number of intercollegiate sports that a university offers, with Division One supporting the largest number of athletic teams, followed by NCAA II and lastly, NCAA III. They found that Division One schools reported more high risk or problematic drinking athletes (78%) as contrasted to NCAA II athletes (76%) and NCAA III athletes (67.5%) in a 12 month period. Nativ, Pubber and Green (1997) found that NCAA I athletes involved in contact sports, such as ice hockey and football, consumed alcohol at a greater frequency and quantity than their non-contact sport counterparts. This pattern was consistent among both males and females.

Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Grossman, and Zanakos (1997) noted that 29% of male college athletes and 24% of female college athletes reported binge drinking three or more times in the past two weeks. In a subsequent study, Wechler, Lee, Kueo, Seibring, Nelson, and Lee (2002) reported that student-athletes were more likely to be occasional and frequent binge drinkers than non-athletes and that college students in general were more likely to be problematic drinkers than non-college students. DeHass (2006) noted problematic drinking has been shown to increase among athletes while they are out of their respective competitive season. Martin (1998) earlier brought attention to this finding by reporting that 56% of college athletes reported binge drinking while they were not in season, while 35% reported binge drinking in season.

Reasons for Abuse

Martens, O’Connor, and Beck (2006) speculated that the environment a college athlete faces itself could lead to alcohol abuse. Stainbeck (1997) theorized that college athletes travel more and are exposed to social settings that promote alcohol abuse. Some have suggested that athletes, as a result of their success, may also gain status in certain social settings where alcohol is more visible. To support this perspective, Crompton (1993); Neal, Sugarman, Hustad, Caska, and Carey (2005); and Madden and Grube (1994) presented theories noting a historical cultural link between alcohol and sporting events. Martens et al. (2006) speculated that the excessive time demands for college athletes may also lead to problematic alcohol problems. He also noted the possibility of social isolationism, as athletes are often separated from their non-athlete peers. He noted possible psychological pressures athletes feel as they experience demands to excel and to live up to coaches, fans, and family expectations. Physically, they also speculated that when athletes are injured, they may feel stressed about recovery and thus turn to alcohol. Lastly, Martens et al. noted another possible problem as a college athlete’s career ends, he or she may find it hard to define an identity outside of athletics, which could also lead to alcohol abuse.

There is also research that indicates problematic drinking among athletes may be over estimated by the athletes themselves. Leeper (2006) for example, identified studies which showed that college athletes overestimate the normal drinking rates both on campus and among their teammates. Leeper suggested that this inaccurate social norm, in and of itself, may lead to an increase in personal alcohol use as the athlete tries to keep up with the perceived, yet false norm. Clark (2008) found that only 20% of students reported drinking the previous night, yet they believed 50% of their student peers drank the previous night. Martens et al. (2006) stated that the theory of inaccurate social norms suggests that the tendency to abuse alcohol may frequently be motivated by perception.

Existing Intervention Programs

The NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (2006) found that 71% of universities had a drug and alcohol education program for their students. The NCAA noted that most of the programs in athletic departments were funded by the Health and Safety Speakers Grant Program, the NCAA Champs/Life Skills programs, or the NCAA CHOICES alcohol education grant. Green, Uryasz, Petr, and Bray (2001) noted alcohol education programs in college athletic departments in 76% of NCAA I schools, 50% of NCAA II, and 41% of NCAA III athletic departments.

Mantel (2006) reported that over 2,400 colleges are using online courses to help reduce binge drinking among students. Austin (1997) reported that Woodson College administrators experimented to see if certain intervention strategies would decrease the use of alcohol among students. The college implemented a social norms campaign, alcohol-free socials and a peer education program. Austin noted the success of the program as students’ perceptions of the binge drinking rate on campus decreased and the reported number of drinks consumed per week decreased. Similarly, a nationwide study of students at 4 year colleges, Welschler, Seibring, Chao Liu, & Ahl (2004) documented the success of social norm campaigns in addressing responsible drinking. They found that 64% of students reported behavioral change due to social norm campaigns at their respective schools.

The NCAA (2008) has implemented and funded alcohol education programs in the name of “Choices” grants, aimed at encouraging social responsibility, not merely abstinence. The NCAA encourages expansion beyond education into the areas of social norms and provision of responsible activities along with the use of peer mentoring and referral training.

Brown (2008) reported on another program titled, “My Playbook.. The effort was initiated by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro in 2007, and was aimed at correcting erroneous social norms and equipping athletes with the tools to make better choices regarding alcohol.

To summarize, there have been many approaches, including restrictions from alcohol, social norm campaigns, peer mentoring, and educational programs, all established with an attempted to alleviate alcohol related problems among college students and athletes. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2002) summarized the research findings and programs and placed efforts into one of three tiers based on student’s perception of effectiveness and on empirical data related to prevalence of alcohol related problems among students. The first tier represented programs that had the best documented success rate when it came to reducing alcohol related problems and consumption on college campuses. These programs focused on cognitive-behavioral skills with norms clarification and motivational enhancement; brief motivational enhancement interventions; and programs that challenged alcohol expectancies. The NIAAA found that tier 2 programs, which focused on rules and sanctions and tier 3 programs, which focused on policy and education were both less effective. One common problem that surfaces in literature examining programs designed to reduce problematic drinking is that many of the success claims are reported in terms of either administrator’s or student’s perception of success as contrasted to empirical studies.

The purpose of this study, with the funding support of the NCAA, was to incorporate an NCAA Choices alcohol responsibility program at a public, regional NCAA II university. The intervention involved a combination of a social norm campaign; athlete peer mentoring and referral training, opportunities for non-alcohol parties associated with athletic contests and educational seminars regarding alcohol responsibility. The hypothesis of this study was that a 12 month, comprehensive alcohol responsibility initiative would have a significant impact on the reported behaviors and perceptions of collegiate athletes in an NCAA II institution.

Methods

This study was designed to incorporate a comprehensive alcohol responsibility initiative among college athletes with the intent of influencing alcohol consumption levels, attitudes, and problematic issues stemming from alcohol abuse. The specific focus was to incorporate and then subsequently examine the impact of a 12 month initative. The program was funded by an NCAA grant. It was directed toward the varsity athletes at a public, regional, NCAA II institution. The intervention consisted of four components. First, a social norm campaign was established which used athletes as poster models to depict social activities that were free of alcohol and to attempt to dispel false myths about the prevalence of alcohol consumption. This was to combat the student perception that alcohol was a requirement for fun and that everybody wanted alcohol at parties. Second, three alcohol and substance abuse educational sessions for athletes were presented to the athlete subject population. This consisted of a three part series of speakers, designed to bring attention to the perils of irresponsible drinking. Third, an athlete-peer mentoring and referral training program was created with two athletes from each team selected by their coaches to be participants. This group was trained in recognition of problems in the personal lives of athletes, particularly with alcohol abuse, and then in appropriate response and referral of their peers if necessary. There were also three campus-wide, alcohol-free parties hosted by participants in the initiative.

Subjects

The subjects consisted of a random sample of 150 athletes in the fall of 2007 who were not subject to any intervention and 150 randomly selected athletes in the fall of 2008 that went through a 12 month intervention program. The 2008 subjects served as the quasi treatment group of this study. The total population of athletes was 282 during the entire study period. All participants were assured of anonymity and agreed to provide informed consent prior to participating in the Core Survey.

Instrumentation

To measure the impact of the programs, the short form of the CORE Drug and Alcohol Survey (Core Institute, 2006) was given to the 2007 subjects and then to the 2008 subjects 12 months later. The survey was designed for use by universities and colleges to determine the extent of substance use and abuse on their campuses, including problematic drinking. The instrument generated responses that were categorized in to one of six broad-based areas, which I analyzed. The areas examined were (a) any alcohol use in past 12 months, (b) more than one binge occasion within past two weeks, (c) serious personal problem related to alcohol, (d) public misconduct in past 12 months, (e) belief that peers drink weekly, and (f) prefer no alcohol at parties.

For this study, problematic drinking was defined the same as binge drinking or as five or more drinks or beers at one setting. Serious alcohol associated problems were defined as concerns such as suicidal tendency, being hurt or injured, unsuccessfully trying to stop sexual assault. Public misconduct was defined as some form of undesirable activity such as trouble with police, fighting, excessive argument, vandalism, or driving while intoxicated. The Core Institute (2006) has documented the reliability and validity of the instrument.

Data Analysis

The responses of the 2007 control group subjects were compared to the responses of the 2008 treatment intervention subjects in the six different assessment areas of the Core Survey. This analysis was used to measure the alcohol related behaviors and attitudes of the 2007 control group as contrasted to the 2008 treatment intervention group. For purposes of this study, a one-tailed t test was used to determine if a significant difference existed between the responses of the control and treatment groups on the responses in the 6 categorical areas of the short form of the Core Survey. The 0.05 level of confidence was used.

Results

The self-reported behaviors of athletes were significantly impacted during the 12 month period of this study in 2 of the 6 categorical areas examined. There were no significant changes in the remaining 4 categorical areas. The 2008 subjects, collegiate student-athletes enrolled in a state supported, regional NCAA II University, were exposed to a systematic 12 month alcohol responsibility intervention program that focused on education, peer mentoring, social norm campaigns, and alcohol free, social opportunities.

As seen in Table 1, the findings indicated a statistically significant improvement ( t = 2.093, p = .041) in the number of athletes reporting binge drinking occasions within the two weeks prior to the administration of the Core Survey. The number dropped from 65% to 42% of the subjects. Also, there was a significant decrease (t=1.72, p=.039) in the reported alcohol-related personal problems of the treatment group. These problems may have been issues such as suicidal tendency, being hurt or injured, sexual assault, or arrest. Reported problems dropped from 41% to 18% of subjects reporting such incidents.

Table 1

Athletes Reporting of Alcohol Responsibility Issues and Perceptions Before (2007) and After (2008) an Alcohol Responsibility Intervention Program (N=300)

some use in last 12 months≥1 binge occasion in recent 2 weeksserious personal problem related to alcohol≥1 public mis-conductbelieve peers drink weeklyprefer no alcohol at parties

2007 88% 65% 41% 56% 100% 22%
2008 73% 42% 18% 39% 82% 28%
t 1.27 2.09 1.72 1.68 1.49 0.81
Sig. .214 .041* .039* .269 .272 .371

Note. *p< .05, one tailed test, df=∞

Discussion

There was a significant decline in the reported prevalence of alcohol binge activity and serious personal problems related to alcohol following the 12 months of the alcohol responsibility program intervention. The decline may be credited to a diverse intervention that included education, peer mentoring and referral training, social norm campaigns, and alcohol free socials. However, it was difficult to control outside variables which also could have had an impact. One example was the infusion of new coaches on to the athletic staff during the 12 month intervention period.

Nonetheless, there is something about athletes that generates a higher level of problematic drinking. Is it the innate, risk-taking personality that may be required to be a college athlete or the basic competitive nature that lends itself to drinking games as suggested by Martens, et al. (2006). It may be the pressure or as Doumas et. al. (2006) suggested, the attachment avoidance documented among college athletes, which may result in a feeling of isolation on campus. This isolation could be the stimulus that encourages athletes to turn to alcohol.

Doumas, et al. (2006) proposed that the problem may already be ingrained by the time the athlete graduates from high school and may not be the result of any collegiate influence, opportunities or pressures. He supported this theory by documenting that collegiate non-athletes who were former athletes in high school exhibited a greater prevalence of problematic drinking than the general student population. If this is the case, the research population needs to change to a much younger age and the emphasis of intervention programs needs to shift to the high school athlete population.

Regarding norms, the finding that 28% of subjects in this study indicated a preference to not have alcohol at parties while the subjects of this study believed that 82% of their peer athletes consumed alcohol weekly presents a dichotomy. In general, there appears to be an inaccuracy between what athletes assume is normal for a social life and what they prefer, related to alcohol.

There are some general implications from the findings of this study that may be applicable for coaches and administrators. First, an active alcohol responsibility initiative involving education, awareness, peer influence and opportunities for alcohol free activities are likely to have an influence on irresponsible drinking. Additionally, the value of correcting erroneous social norms among athletes cannot be underestimated and is deserving of more investigation.

To better understand and identify the sources of the problems related to alcohol abuse, it appears that studies aimed at the high school level, or younger, might reveal helpful information regarding athletes. Perhaps the culture of linking sports to alcohol, both form a spectator and competitor viewpoint, is learned at the high school level or earlier and should be a target for study. Regardless, attention to the high prevalence of problematic drinking among college athletes remains important as coaches try to assist in the total development of their protégés.

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