Generic Alcoholism: Are College Athletes at Risk?


Alcohol and other drug use by college athletes have received increased attention in recent years. The purpose of this study was to explore the relationship of collegiate athletes and non-athletes drinking patterns to those of generic alcoholism. The findings revealed a large portion of the college sample, both athlete and non-athlete, reported alcohol dependency as indicated by the scores of the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (MAST). Additionally, a significant difference was found to exist between males and females with respect to their scores on the MAST.

In recent years alcohol and other drug use by college athletes has received increased attention by the media. The drug-related deaths and arrests of several professional athletes have fueled the public interest in examining the role which alcohol and other drugs play in the lives of athletes. Despite the general perception that athletes are more health-conscious than their non-athlete counterparts, studies indicate that athletes abuse drugs regularly with alcohol as the most widely abused drug of all (Evans, Weinberg, & Jackson, 1992; Anderson, Albrecht, McKeag, Hough, & McGrew, 1991).

Over the past two decades very few studies have investigated alcohol use among college athletes and compared their use to student non-athletes. However, the findings of the studies which have been conducted (Overman & Terry, 1991; Anderson et al., 1991; Vance, 1982) indicate that minimal differences in alcohol use exist between these two groups. In a large national survey Anderson et al. (1991) found that nearly 89 percent of collegiate athletes reported alcohol use during the previous 12 months compared to 91.5 percent of the general population of college students. Similar findings were observed in a study comparing alcohol use and attitudes among college athletes and non-athletes (Overman & Terry, 1991). In this study, the researchers found no evidence that alcohol and other drug use is higher among college athletes than the rest of the student population. Furthermore, Vance (1982) reported NCAA survey findings indicated that athletes and non-athletes do not differ with respect to alcohol use.

In comparison, numerous studies have been conducted investigating alcohol use among high school athletes and non-athletes. The findings in these studies have been somewhat conflicting. Shields (1995) and Forman, Dekker, Javors, and Davison (1995) found a lower prevalence of alcohol use by student-athletes as compared to non-athletes. In contrast, a comprehensive study conducted by Rainey, McKeown, Sargent, and Valois (1996) found that adolescent athletes reported more drinking and binge drinking than did non-athletes. Similarly, in a study comparing alcohol use and intoxication in high school athletes and non-athletes, researchers found that athletes drank more frequently and reported less abstinence from alcohol consumption than student non-athletes (Carr, Kennedy, & Dimick, 1990).

Reviewing the literature for both the college and high school athlete populations in respect to alcohol use is important. Recent research indicates unhealthy drinking patterns in college may begin in high school (Anderson et al., 1991). Specifically, Anderson et al. (1991) found that 63 percent of the college athlete sample who reported using alcohol and drugs had their first experiences while in high school and 22 percent in junior high school.

Based on the findings reported, research is indicating that when studying substance use at the high school level, athletes are reporting drinking more alcohol more frequently that non-athletes. In addition, it appears that college athletes are not more health conscious, with regard to substance use, that their non-athletic counterparts. These types of findings lead to questions regarding the long-term effects of alcohol use by athletes. Are collegiate athletes at risk for developing generic alcoholism? So far, there have been no studies conducted examining and comparing college athletes and non-athletes and their tendency toward generic alcoholism using an alcoholism screening questionnaire. The purpose of the current study was to explore the relationship of collegiate athletes and non-athletes drinking patterns to those of generic alcoholism. Specifically, the study was designed to determine if significant differences existed between college athletes and non-athletes with regard to scores on the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (MAST) (Selzer, 1971). The secondary purpose of this study was to determine if gender differences existed between and within the two groups.


A sample of 367 undergraduate students attending psychology and health courses at a small Southern university volunteered to participate in this study for extra credit points. Approximately 34 percent were male (n = 123) and 66 percent were female (n = 244) with approximately 74 percent between the ages of 18 and 21. There were 327 non-athletes and 38 athletes; Data from two of the participants were not included in the subject pool due to missing information about athletic status.

For the purpose of this study, only the data from the subjects who scored between 5 and 9 on the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (Selzer, 1971) were used. Thirty-four percent of the participants scored in this range: 110 non-athletes and 15 athletes; 44 males and 81 females.

The Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (MAST) (Selzer, 1971) and a demographic information sheet were used to collect data. The MAST is used to predict alcohol dependence. For this study’s purposes, only data from the subjects scoring between 5 and 9 on the MAST were used in the analysis. Scores in this range indicate an 80 percent association with generic alcoholism (Selzer, 1971). The demographic information sheet asked questions about age, gender, and athletic status. Athletic status was determined by participation in a college varsity sport.

Students from selected courses in the Psychology and Health and Human Performance Departments were asked to participate in the study. Recruitment occurred during the subjects’ regularly scheduled class times using sign-up sheets for testing sessions. During this time the subjects were told the amount of extra credit they would receive for their participation. Testing occurred at various class times within one week. Each testing session lasted approximately 45 minutes. Prior to the distribution of the surveys, the subjects received a description of the study and an informed consent form, and were allowed to withdraw at any time without penalty. They were also advised that their answers would remain anonymous. After returning the informed consent forms, subjects received instructions and the questionnaires, which included the MAST and demographics sheet.

The subject’s responses from the questionnaires were entered on a general scantron sheet without their names to ensure confidentiality.


Thirty-four percent (44 males and 81 females) of the total sample scored in the
5 – 9 category of the MAST. A two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) for unequal sample sizes was computed to find if the differences in scores on the MAST were significant between and within the sample of athletes and non-athletes. Table II reports the findings of this analysis.

Table 1
Analysis of Variance – Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test
Source of
df Sums of
Mean Square F P
Main Effects 2 10.175 5.088 8.760 .000

Athletic Status





2-Wat Interactions16.8016.80111.711.001

Athletic Status X


16.0816.08111.711.001      Within12170.274.581        Total12481.888.660

The Analysis of Variance Summary Table indicated that there was a significant difference between athletes and non-athletes with respect to their scores in the 5 – 9 category of the MAST, F.01 = (1,121) = 17.488, p < .001. The mean score (M = 6.87) for athletes was significantly higher than the mean score (M = 6.26) for non-athletes. (See Table II) There were also significant differences between males and females with respect to their scores in the 5 – 9 category of the MAST, F.01= (1, 121) = 8.122, p < .005. The mean score (M = 6.45) for males was significantly higher than the mean score (M = 6.27) for females. (See Table II) It is notable that while males (N = 44) scored significantly higher on the MAST, the frequencies of females (F = 81) reporting a 5 – 9 generic range was higher.

Table 2
Group Means of the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test
Athlete 6.8667 1.187
Non-Athlete 6.2636 .725
Males 6.4545 .901
Females 6.2716 .758

Finally, the test for the interaction of athletic status and gender was significant,
F.01(1,121) = 11.71, p < .001. However, due to the relatively low number of female athletes in the sample, further investigation into the interaction was not conducted.


The findings revealed that a large proportion of the college sample used in this study reported alcohol dependence as indicated by their scores on the MAST. These findings correspond very closely to the large percentage of college student binge drinkers found in a large-scale study by Weschler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, and Castillo (1994). The results from this study indicated that 44 percent of the nation’s college students engaged in binge drinking behaviors. While it is acknowledged that binge drinking is a separate construct from generic alcoholism, binge-drinking behaviors are considered as primary indicators of alcoholism (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 1994).

The findings of the current study are in direct contrast with earlier studies (Overman & Terry, 1991; Anderson et al., 1991; Vance, 1982) indicating minimal differences in alcohol use between athletes and non-athletes. The present study revealed that there were significant differences between athletes and non-athletes with respect to their scores on the MAST. Athletes scored higher on the MAST than did non-athletes, suggesting that alcohol dependency is greater among athletes than for the general student body. Several possibilities have been suggested as to why athletes might abuse alcohol more than non-athletes. Falk (1990) investigated the various sociological and psychological factors associated with the chemically dependent athlete. Obsessive compulsive personality features, difficulty in maintaining interpersonal relationships, preoccupation with body image and physical appearance, and inability to cope with high expectations are a few of the factors identified by Falk. It appears that athletes have specific pressures and concerns directly related to athletic participation. Additionally, there may be a lack of awareness, information and/or support for many athletes in developing positive coping skills to address the pressure surrounding athletics.

The findings also indicated that significant differences exist between males and females with respect to their scores on the MAST. Males scored higher on the MAST than did females indicating that males have a greater dependency for alcohol than females. These results are supported by several other studies that found alcohol frequency and consumption rates to be higher among males than females (Weschler et al., 1994; Overman & Terry, 1991; Flynn & Shoemaker, 1989).

Based upon the results of this study, two factors that are associated with alcohol dependency in college are participation in athletics and being male. However, the number of females scoring in the 5 – 9 category in this study indicate that females (athlete or non-athlete) are at risk for developing alcohol dependency similarly to their male counterparts. This is evident in several studies that found minimal differences between females and males (athlete or non-athlete) in regards to their drinking behaviors (Anderson et al., 1991; Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 1994; Anderson & McKeag, 1985).

The 5 – 9 category of the MAST scores was chosen to meet specific purposes in the present study. This 5 – 9 scoring is considered to be a conservative estimate when aiding in the clinical diagnosis of alcohol dependence. It is considered to eliminate false positives in the adult population. This means that a higher incidence of high-risk behavior is needed to categorize an individual as dependent. This category of scoring (5 – 9) was deemed the most appropriate for the present study due to its conservative nature, the progressiveness of the disease of alcoholism, the peer culture, and the developmental stage of the college population.

Findings such as these indicate a strong need for further research in this area beyond the preliminary study. Future research needs to address design issues such as sample and cell size. In addition, focus may be placed on the effects of various sports on alcohol behaviors, specific indicators of athletes at risk, early prevention, and positive coping skills. Continued research and application is needed to aid young individuals, both athletes and non-athletes, in meeting their full potential.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michael Moulton,, (318) 357-5142.


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