An Explanatory Model of Student-Athlete Drinking: The Role of Team Leadership, Social Norms, Perceptions of Risk, and Coaches' Attitudes toward Alcohol Consumption

By Lewis, Todd F. | College Student Journal, September 2008 | Go to article overview

An Explanatory Model of Student-Athlete Drinking: The Role of Team Leadership, Social Norms, Perceptions of Risk, and Coaches' Attitudes toward Alcohol Consumption


Lewis, Todd F., College Student Journal


Research has established that student-athletes drink more alcohol and experience greater consequences compared to their non-athlete peers, prompting many investigators to consider university athletes an at risk subpopulation of college students. However, a dearth of research exists on explaining drinking behavior among student-athletes in general, and among team leaders compared to nonleaders in particular. This article responds to calls in the literature for more explanatory research assessing differences in alcohol use between team members and team leaders. Specifically, the aim of this study was to investigate, in a multivariate assessment, the ability of normative beliefs, perceptions of risk, coaches' attitudes toward drinking, and socio-demographic variables to discriminate among four groups of student athletes classified across levels of drinking intensity and leadership status. An anonymous survey was administered to 211 student-athletes at a mid-size, southeastern university. Results indicated substantial drinking behavior among this group. A multiple discriminant function analysis revealed that student-athletes who were non-leaders and engaged in heavy, episodic drinking perceived greater risks associated with alcohol consumption, greater leniency from coaches, and greater levels of alcohol use among peers. Implications for university interventions are discussed.

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During the 1980's, the connection between collegiate athletic participation and substance use gained increasing attention throughout the United States, as media outlets began reporting incidents of alcohol and other drug problems among student-athletes (Anderson, Albrecht, McKeag, Hough, & McGrew, 1991; Overman & Terry, 1991; Selby, Weinstein, & Bird, 1990). This connection was surprising, in that athletic participation was perceived as a structured experience for young adults that supposedly provided insulation from substance related problems (Overman & Terry). The increased focus on alcohol and drug use by student-athletes prompted an examination by the NCAA as well as academic researchers (Anderson et al.; Overman & Terry).

Research since this time has established that student-athletes often drink more alcohol and experience greater drinking related consequences than their non-athletic peers, prompting many researchers to categorize student-athletes as an at risk subpopulation of students (Leichliter, Meilman, Presley, & Cashin, 1998; Thombs, 2000; Wechsler et al., 1997). For instance, Leichliter et al. found that the per week average of drinks and percentage of respondents reporting heavy, episodic drinking increased as the level of athletic participation increased. In a survey of students at 140 American colleges, Wechsler and colleagues found that student-athletes engaged in binge drinking more often than non-athletes. The 2001 NCAA Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student Athletes (The National Collegiate Athletic Association Research Staff, 2001), a nationwide investigation of 21,225 participants, noted significant involvement in alcohol related consequences across a number of events including having a hangover (52.4%), nausea or vomiting (43.7%), and driving a car while under the influence (29.7%). Clearly, heavy alcohol use and associated consequences remains a serious issue for coaches, administrators, and campus personnel.

Social norm theory has been one model of college drinking that has received considerable attention in the literature (Berkowitz, 2004; Borsari & Carey, 2003; Perkins, 2002). According to Berkowitz, this model is predicated on the assumption that peer influences have a greater impact on individual behavior than biological, personal, and cultural/familial variables. At its core, social norm theory predicts that behavior is impacted by false perceptions of how other individuals in our social environments think and act. In an effort to avoid isolation, individual behavior converges to a perceived (and often false) norm.

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