Proximal Norms, Selected Sociodemographics, and Drinking Behavior among University Student Athletes

Article excerpt

Few studies have examined social norm theory with subpopulations of college students. In this study, the authors examined the relationships between social norms and student-athlete drinking. Results suggest drinking is a function of proximal norms, particularly related to teammates. Implications for counselor interventions are discussed.


For the past 20 years, alcohol-related problems among university student athletes have been an emerging concern for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Indeed, some academic researchers have noted that this subpopulation is at risk for serious alcohol problems because they have been found to have higher drinking rates and face more alcohol-related consequences compared with nonathletes (Leichliter, Meilman, Presley, & Cashin, 1998; Thombs, 2000; Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Grossman, & Zanakos, 1997). This at-risk status is somewhat unexpected, given that the structure of athletic participation has traditionally been viewed as a buffer against actions that are harmful to health and well-being (Overman & Terry, 1991). That is, the very nature of being an athlete was thought to entail taking care of one's physical development so as to ensure peak performance (Overman & Terry, 1991).

However, research has demonstrated that the perceived protective influences of athletic participation do not always shield student athletes from negative or harmful behavior. For example, Leichliter et al. (1998) found that student athletes consumed greater quantities of alcohol compared with nonathletes, presumably because of the increased demands student athletes face in terms of keeping commitments, dealing with time pressures, and maintaining high performance levels. Among a nationwide sample of college students, Wechsler et al. (1997) found that student athletes engaged in binge drinking (i.e., had five or more drinks in a row in one sitting for men, four for women) more often than nonathletes did. Even team leaders have demonstrated heavier alcohol use and substance abuse-related problems compared with nonleaders, prompting Leichliter et al. to dispel the myth that athletic leadership is always associated with good role modeling.

Thombs (2000) argued that much of the research on student-athlete drinking has focused on prevalence rates and comparing drinking involvement between student athletes and nonathletes. Indeed, such studies (e.g., Leichliter et al., 1998; Wechsler et al., 1997) raised awareness of the high level of alcohol involvement among student athletes, prompting the NCAA to make a number of recommendations to reduce alcohol use and associated problems among this subpopulation of students (NCAA, 2005, 3.b., "NCAA alcohol policy"). Research is limited, however, on explanatory mechanisms of drinking behavior and alcohol abuse among student athletes (Thombs, 2000).

Despite limited research on the explanatory mechanisms of drinking among student athletes, commentators have proposed possible reasons for high alcohol involvement. One hypothesis is that student-athlete drinking occurs as a way to mitigate the stresses associated with balancing various tasks (e.g., academics vs. athletic participation). Although this situation may apply to many student athletes, Thombs (2000) argued that it is overly simplistic and has not been supported in the literature.

Another explanation for increased alcohol consumption is that student athletes may misperceive the drinking practices of their close peers (i.e., teammates), leading to greater levels of alcohol consumption as they seek to match their behavior to a false norm. In this view, the social influences on student-athlete drinking are similar to those of college students in general. Indeed, social norm theory has been relied on as a common explanatory model of college student alcohol consumption (Berkowitz, 2004; Thombs, 2006). The major tenet of social norm theory is that excessive drinking is a function of biased perceptions of peer drinking (norms) that tend to develop in close-knit environments, such as the traditional college campus (Baer, Stacy, & Larimer, 1991). …