Comparison of patterns of alcohol use between high school and college athletes and non-athletes – Statistical Data Included
Kathryn M. Hildebrand
Alcohol abuse on college campuses is recognized nationally as a serious problem. Evidence regarding athletes’ immunity to this problem is inconclusive. The purpose of this study was to compare the patterns of alcohol use and engagement in alcohol-related risk behaviors by college athletes, college students who were athletes before college, and those who were never athletes. College students enrolled at a public Southeastern university (n= 1287) completed 20-item survey designed to identify patterns of alcohol use and alcohol-related behaviors. The data were analyzed using descriptive and Chi square statistics. Results significantly indicate those in the non-athlete group abused alcohol less and engaged less frequently in alcohol-related risk behaviors than did those in the high school or college athlete groups.
Alcohol abuse on college campuses is recognized by administrators and public health officials nationwide as a serious problem. Underage drinking is widespread and has been identified as a major contributor to morbidity and mortality and social problems (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 1998; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 1993). Alcohol-related tragedies account for 40% of deaths among adolescents and young adults, with automobile crashes being the strongest contributor (CDC, 1998). Alcohol abuse also contributes to unplanned sexual activity and sexual aggression, unintended pregnancies, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV (CDC, 1998; Frintner & Rubinson, 1993; Koss & Gains, 1993; Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, & Castillo, 1994). Although these facts are well-known, abusive drinking occurs at a higher rate among college students than among young people not attending college (Johnston, O’Malley, & Bachman, 1997).
Schools, colleges, and communities have initiated a variety of programs, including sport programs, to steer youth away from engagement in risky behaviors and have specifically targeted alcohol abuse. Sport programs for youth originally began as an alternative to such behaviors. Athletic programs at both the high school and college levels demand disciplined training. Several programs have rules of conduct for student athletes that prohibit them from drinking alcohol. Even so, research does not confirm that alcohol abuse is lower among athletes than their non-athlete peers. Although some results indicate a decrease or no significant differences in drinking patterns of college athletes and non-athletes (Koss & Gains, 1993; Overman & Terry, 1991), other findings suggest just the opposite (Leichliter, Meilman, Presley,& Cashin, 1998; Nattiv & Puffer, 1991; Selby, Weinstein & Bird, 1990). Some evidence indicates rates of alcohol abuse increase as involvement with athletics increases (Leichliter, et al. 1998; Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Grossman, & Zanakos, 1997). In one of these studies (Wechsler, et al., 1997), “involvement, in athletics was not well defined and was not limited to actually being a college athlete.
Well documented is the fact that most college students have drank alcohol before entering college (CDC, 1998, 2000). A recent finding reports alcohol abuse during the high school years to be a strong predictor of alcohol abuse in college (Weschler, Lee, Kuo, & Lee, 2000). In light of this information, along with inconclusive evidence regarding the relationship between degree of athletic involvement and abuse of alcohol, the investigation of alcohol abuse rates among college athletes and differences in the patterns of alcohol use during high school for college athletes and non-athletes is warranted.
The purpose of this study was to compare the patterns of alcohol abuse and engagement in alcohol related risk behaviors by college students and to investigate whether previous or current athletic participation was associated with those behaviors. Alcohol abuse behaviors were defined as the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption and the frequency of binge drinking during the semester preceding the survey. Alcohol-related risk behaviors involved riding in motor vehicles and engagement in sexual intercourse while under the influence of alcohol. The findings from this study could have implications for efforts by colleges to reduce occurrences of alcohol abuse among their students.
A questionnaire designed to measure patterns of alcohol abuse, engagement in alcohol related risk behaviors, and participation in organized scholastic and collegiate sports was completed voluntarily and anonymously by 1287 (n=1287) college students enrolled at a public university in the southeast. The questionnaire was given in general education classes to ensure a sample representative of the university. The gender breakdown of the subjects was 55% female and 45% male, which is reflective of the gender breakdown at that university. The makeup of participants by class was 23% freshmen, 30% sophomores, 22% juniors, and 23% seniors. Students gave informed consent by completing the questionnaire.
The questionnaire consisted of 25 items and measured the degree of alcohol abuse, the grade at which alcohol was first used, and engagement in alcohol related risk behaviors during the previous semester. Alcohol abuse was determined by finding the frequency of alcohol consumption, the average number of drinks one drank at a single sitting, and the frequency that one binge drank. Frequency of alcohol consumption was multiplied by the average number of drinks one had at a single sitting to establish a total semester alcohol score. Total semester scores were categorized into “light drinking”, “medium drinking”, and “heavy drinking” categories.
Engagement in alcohol related risk behaviors was determined by finding how frequently one engaged in sexual intercourse under the influence of alcohol, how frequently one rode with a driver who had been drinking, and how frequently one drove after drinking. Likert-type questions were used in the questionnaire to measure the alcohol related behaviors, :and multiple choice questions were used to measure the grade during which one first consumed alcohol.
The survey classified the participants into three groups relative to their athletic participation: (a)college athletes (n=202), (those who had been an athlete at both the high school and college levels), high school athlete (n=767)(those who had been an athlete at the high school but not the college level), and non-athlete (n=318) (those who had not been an athlete at either the high school nor college levels). Yes/no questions were used to identify students’ athlete status. The data were analyzed using descriptive statistics and Chi Square techniques. An alpha value of .05 was used to determine significant differences.
The data indicated that college students who were previously or currently athletes consumed more alcohol, began drinking earlier, and engaged in alcohol-related risk behaviors more frequently than college students who had never been athletes.
Lifetime alcohol consumption was similar for all groups. A higher percentage of college athletes (93.1%) than high school athletes (92.1%) or non-athletes (89.0%) had drank alcohol at some time during their lives. During the semester prior to taking the survey, 85.6% of college athletes, 84.3% of high school athletes, and 78.9% of non-athletes reported they drank.
Both athlete groups reported drinking more frequently than college students who had never been athletes (50.45, df=8, p < .001). While 39.6% of college athletes and 35.9% of high school athletes reported drinking an average of more than twice per week, only 21.2% of non-athletes reported doing so. Significance between groups was also found for the average number of drinks per sitting, with 65.8% of college athletes and 62.4% of high school athletes reporting averaging 3 or more drinks per sitting as compared to 44.4% of non-athletes (40.59, df=8, p < .001). Predictably, the semester drink score showed the same trend, with the score for a higher percentage of both groups of athletes' than non-athletes' falling in the "heavy drinking" category, and a higher percentage of non-athletes' scores falling in the "light drinking" category (see table 1).
Differences between groups for binge drinking behavior was significant. A higher percentage of both groups of athletes compared to non-athletes reported that they binge drank during the previous semester. The athlete groups also binge drank more frequently than the non-athletes. Scores of frequency categories were combined and are shown in table 2.
Grade of First Drink
The most common grades of first alcohol consumption for all categories of participants who had ever drunk alcohol occurred during the high school years (college athletes, 48.1%; high school athletes, 50.4%; non-athletes, 46.8%). Of lifetime drinkers, a higher percentage of non-athletes than both athlete groups reported not drinking before college (9.0% of college athletes, 10.6% of high school athletes, and 16.3% of non-athletes). Almost on third of athletes in both categories first drank in middle school (32.3%, college athletes; 30.0% high school athletes) as compared to less than one fourth of non athletes (22.0%) (19.72, df = 6, p = .003).
Engagement in Alcohol Related Risk Behaviors
Table 3 shows the percentages of participants in each category who rode in a car with a driver who had been drinking and who drove after they themselves had been drinking. Although greater percentages indicated they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking than had driven themselves after they had been drinking, both groups of athletes tended to put themselves in these high risk situations more than non-athletes.
When looking at the percentages of participants who had engaged in sexual intercourse under the influence of alcohol, both groups of athletes again indicated a higher level of engagement than non-athletes. Percentages of those who had never engaged in sexual intercourse under the influence of alcohol during the previous semester decreased steadily as athletic participation increased (69.2% non-athletes, 61.9% high school athletes,55.9% college athletes). The percentages of both categories of athletes who reported engaging in this behavior “often” or “always” were similar and higher than that of non-athletes (7.9%, 7.4%, and 4.4% respectively)(15.44, df = 8, p = .05).
A common perception about social life at college is that it is a time during which risky behaviors are initiated. The findings of this study concur with national studies and suggest that this is not the case with alcohol use as 91.6% of college athletes, 90.2% of high school athletes, and 85.5% of non-athletes first drank before college. During the years most of the participants were in high school, the national percentage for high school seniors’ lifetime alcohol use was 84.0% (CDC, 1998).
Although speculations of athletic programs would suggest athletes are somewhat immune from alcohol abuse behavior and related activities on college campuses, the results of this study indicate not only is this not the case, but in fact just the opposite is true. The high percentage of athletes who drank in high school is surprising, as is the percentage of both athlete groups who reported heavy and frequent drinking in college. It is important to note that differences in patterns of alcohol use were small between college students who were currently athletes and those who had previously been athletes. Consistent with the findings of Wechsler et al. (2000), drinking patterns were established before college and did not change upon matriculation to college even though one’s status as an athlete did. Questions arise as to the stimulus for this behavior. Did sport and related social situations promote the use of alcohol among athletes, or does the personality of one attracted to athletics have characteristics of those who are likely to engage in high risk behaviors? Do athletes perceive the negative consequences of their behavior? Or perhaps they perceive a small likelihood the consequences will be enforced. More research is needed in this area as the findings could have implications for the conduct of school and college athletics and/or risk behavior interventions at both levels.
College students who were previous and current athletes also engaged in alcohol related risk behaviors more than those who had not participated in athletics. An interesting observation is that, unlike the similarity between the two athlete groups’ drinking behaviors, engagement in alcohol related risk behaviors noticeably increased as the degree of athletic participation increased (college athletes engaged at higher rates than high school athletes). Again, this raises questions. Does time spent as an athlete or the degree of success as an athlete increase one’s sense of invincibility? Or is the personality of a successful athlete that of a high risk taker which increases their vulnerability to risky situations? Studies have shown that athletes at some institutions have received special treatment associated with their athletic status (Benedict, 1997, 1998; Eskenazi, 1990; Hoffman, 1986). Do athletes develop a false perception that this special status will continue to protect them as they engage in alcohol related risk behaviors? Again, the answers to these questions have implications for intervention strategies among current and previous athletes at the college level.
Results of this study showed that current and former student athletes contribute disproportionately to problems of alcohol abuse and other related risk behaviors on college campuses, and that drinking patterns were established before college. This is compulsive evidence for alcohol abuse intervention becoming a part of one’s formal high school education. One way to help address alcohol related problems that are being brought to colleges would be to include in the college admission requirements a high school course covering health and wellness material including anti-abusive skills pertaining to alcohol use, or if absent from the transcripts, require such education during the first semester on campus.
Although colleges do not currently include such courses in their admissions requirements, several states and school districts do require a health class and/or a cognitive based physical education class for high school graduation in which alcohol abuse is addressed. Ironically, athletes are often exempt from taking such courses with their participation in sports meeting their physical education and/or health requirement. According to the results of this study, such policies need to be reversed, as athletes were found to be those in the greatest need of such a class. If colleges were to include a wellness course requirement for admission, or require such a course be taken early in college if this requirement had not been met in high school, they would support positive intervention directed toward improving behavior management of college students related to alcohol. Additionally, college athletic departments should include in their life-skills program an extensive required educational component related to alcohol abuse and related risk behaviors.
When investigating alcohol abuse and related risk behaviors of college students, this study found an increase in these behaviors among both previous and current athletes. College students in this study who are current or previous athletes began drinking at an earlier age, consumed more alcohol more often, binge drank more frequently, and engaged in alcohol related risk behaviors more frequently than college students who had never been athletes. Length of athletic participation was associated with increased rather than decreased engagement in these behaviors.
With all three groups, there was little change in patterns of alcohol use from high school to college. Based on the results of this study, the following conclusions can be drawn: (a) patterns of alcohol use by college students seem to develop at the high school level or before, (b) athletes use alcohol more frequently than do non-athletes and in greater amounts, and (c) these patterns remain the same when these same individuals matriculate to college. Additionally, athletes engage in risk behaviors related to alcohol consumption more than non-athletes. This behavior increases as participation in athletics continues. Further research is needed to determine contributing factors and appropriate intervention strategies.
In order to reduce the occurrence of alcohol-related problems being brought to their campuses, colleges should explore possibilities of including a course in their admission policies in which alcohol behaviors are addressed. Although many high schools use health and cognitive-based physical education classes to address alcohol-related issues, many times athletes are exempt from taking them. This practice may be doing athletes a disservice and exasperating the alcohol problem among this group and should be addressed. To overcome this void, athletic departments should provide an educational component for those athletes lacking such a course. Finally, school and college faculty, coaches, and those involved with student life cannot ignore the prevalence of alcohol abuse and related risk behaviors among college athletes.
Semester Drink Categories for College Athletes, High School
Athletes, and Non-Athletes
Athlete Category No Light Medium Heavy
Drinking Drinking Drinking Drinking
College Athlete 14.5% 26.3% 29.9% 28.5%
High School Athlete 15.7% 32.6% 29.4% 22.2%
Non Athlete 21.1% 42.8% 22.2% 13.8%
([x.sup.2] = 67.16, df=18, p < .001)
Frequency of Binge Drinking for College Athletes, High School
Athletes, and Non-Athletes
Athlete Category No Binge Binge Few Binge Few Binge More
Drinking Times/Semester Times/Month Than Once
College Athlete 28.2% 18.8% 42.1% 10.9%
High School 33.4% 17.6% 39.3% 9.8%
Non Athlete 47.5% 20.8% 26.7% 5.0%
([x.sup.2] = 36.53, df=8, p < .001)
Frequency of Motor Vehicle Use After Drinking for College
Athletes, High School Athletes, and Non-Athletes
Rode with someone who
had been drinking
Athlete Category Some- > Once/
Never times Week
College Athlete 25.2% 59.9% 14.8%
High School Athlete 30.4% 55.7%/ 13.9%
Non Athlete 40.3% 49.7% 10.0%
Driven after drinking
Athlete Category Some- > Once/
Never times Week
College Athlete 27.2% 62.9% 9.9%
High School Athlete 42.2% 49.0% 8.8%
Non Athlete 50.6% 42.8% 6.6%
(* [x.sup.2] = 23.57, df = 8, p = .003)
(** [x.sup.2] = 40.19, df = 8, p < .001)
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KATHRYN M. HILDEBRAND, PH.D.
Department of Health Promotion and Exercise Science
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ 86011-5095
DEWAYNE J. JOHNSON, PH.D.
KIBERLY BOGLE, M.S.
The Florida State University
COPYRIGHT 2001 Project Innovation (Alabama)
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group