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Survey of college drinking patterns show athletes drink more than non-athletic students, but fraternities hold the record

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Male college athletes consume about 50 percent more alcohol than their counterparts who don't participate in intercollegiate sports, a record beaten only by college fraternity members, as shown in a study published by the Core Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in the May issue of the Journal of American College Health.

Men on intercollegiate sports teams consume 10 alcoholic drinks a week, or 52 percent more than non-athletes, who average six drinks a week. College fraternity members consume 12 drinks a week on average.

The drinking practices of team leaders revealed in the study are of concern to Philip W. Meilman, the Core Institute's co-director and director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University: 64 percent of male team leaders say they binge on alcohol, while 61 percent of their teammates report binging. By comparison, 45 percent of males not on intercollegiate sports teams reported that they binge drink. (Binging is defined as consuming five or more drinks in one sitting.)

Female athletes are flirting with trouble, too, the report shows. Nearly half (49 percent) of women team leaders admit they binge drink, a practice followed by 47 percent of their teammates and 31 percent of college women not on athletic teams. Female players drank an average of four drinks per week, or one drink more than their non-athletic sisters consumed.

"Team leaders appear to abuse alcohol to a somewhat greater extent than their teammates," Meilman says. "One would hope that they could serve as better role models. College athletic programs need to work harder on fostering positive leadership practices in their team captains. These are the students who set the norms, and they can be a force for good."

A total of 51,483 students on 125 college campuses across the United States answered the survey during the 1994 through 1996 school years. Among them were 20,595 males, 18 percent of whom played intercollegiate sports, and 30,888 women, 10 percent of whom played on intercollegiate teams. Data included responses from students studying at private and public colleges and universities, and at two- and four-year schools.

Athletes were not asked which sports they played or if their drinking took place on- or off-season.

"Using alcohol may be part of the 'work hard, play hard' ethic that athletes follow," advises Cheryl A. Presley, director of the Core Institute. "Now that administrators are aware of the problem they can begin to tailor prevention programs to college athletes, who we now know are clearly at-risk."

Drinking and drug use are causing athletes a variety of problems, says Jami S. Leichliter, assistant director of the Core Institute and the report's co-author. She points to the survey's other findings, which show:

  • 44 percent of male team members said they drove under the influence of alcohol or other drugs in the previous year;
  • 69 percent of male team members and 65 percent of female team members reported having hangovers;
  • 59 percent of male team members and 57 percent of female team members suffered nausea or vomiting after drinking or other drug use;
  • 32 percent of men and 25 percent of women on athletics teams said drinking or drug use impaired their academic performance during the year;
  • 42 percent of male and 35 percent of female team members were involved in fights or arguments after drinking or using drugs;
  • 37 percent of male and female athletes suffered memory loss brought on by alcohol or drugs;
  • 24 percent of male and 14 percent of female athletes reported having trouble with the law.

Universities need to study the numbers as carefully as they do their teams' win-loss records, the researchers say.

"Maybe the pressures on athletes are greater than anybody realized," says Leichliter. "We need to do a better job of helping them manage the demands they face."