In early May, 2011 the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that it was considering a new alcohol intervention program designed to combat problem drinking by its students. One component of the program would allow undergraduates to opt out of an underage drinking ticket by attending courses on the risks posed by alcohol use.
The program is modeled after a nationally-recognized program at Texas Tech University that many consider a model for efforts to reduce problem drinking on campuses. The program is called Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS). Students identified as being at risk for alcohol-related problems take part in two 90-minute educational sessions. These are done either one-on-one or in a group setting.
In the 2009-10 academic year the UW-Madison police department reported taking 186 students to detox; the department also reported issuing 805 tickets for underage drinking, although not all of those tickets were issued to UW students.
Researchers have known for a number of years that college student-athletes are more at risk than the student body as a whole for encountering alcohol-related problems. A study done in 2001 found that college athletes, both male and female, were more likely to have reported binge drinking incidents[i]. This report was based on a survey administered in 1997 to randomly- selected groups of students at randomly-selected colleges and universities around the U.S. Binge drinking was defined as males having consumed 5 or more drinks in one sitting in the 2 weeks prior to taking the survey and females having taken 4 or more drinks at one sitting during the same period of time.
The researchers in that study attributed the findings to the unique social and environmental influences on athletes as well as their sense of invulnerability and entitlement. The authors also concluded that educational programs put in place by schools for all student-athletes had little impact on behaviors.
A second study was published in 2010 that surveyed a non-randomly selected pool of 230 athletes (143 male and 87 female) at one Division I university. Ninety-six of these students self-reported themselves as heavy drinkers (see the definition from above for binge drinkers). The authors of this study concluded that the university’s policies towards student drinking had little impact on the behaviors of the student-athletes. This study can be found here.
It should be noted that the university involved did not seek out the assistance of its medical or mental health/substance abuse experts in designing educational programs for its athletes. The authors pointedly noted that this was an area of expertise that should be sought out when designing future programs.
Many university athletic departments are now hiring outside psychological and motivational experts to come in and work with student-athletes. Nick Saban, the football coach at the University of Alabama, brought in people from The Pacific Institute prior to the 2008 to work with his players in various areas of personal development. One of these areas involves training student-athletes on the negative consequences of substance abuse and how abuse can undermine a team as well as harm individuals. The athletic department is reported to spend between $25,000 and $50,000 per year for these services.
Coach Saban also brings in speakers from the Tuscaloosa police department and has been known to have players ride on patrol with officers working crime-ridden neighborhoods. Of course critics would point out that a number of Crimson Tide players have had run ins with the law during his tenure, including former running back Jimmy Johns, who was arrested in a parking lot near the football building on campus for selling crack cocaine.
A quick review of online articles in preparation for this article turned up reports of alcohol and drug-related arrests at eight other major football schools in the South over the past couple of years. Many of these schools have had numerous problems with student-athletes. A former Tennessee football player named Aaron Douglas has left Knoxville after the 2009 season and spent the 2010 season at Arizona Western Community College. He signed with Alabama in January and enrolled and participated in spring training. In May he was found dead in a condo room in Daytona Beach after a night of partying. Just before enrolling at Alabama he had been arrested at his home in Tennessee and charged with DUI.
The University of Georgia was identified in 2010 by The Princeton Review (not affiliated with Princeton University) as the nation’s number one party school. Perhaps it is not coincidental that over the past two years the Georgia football program has had over a dozen players encounter legal problems, many of them alcohol or drug-related.
College coaches are fond of telling parents of prospective players that they will act as a surrogate parent for these young men and women while away at college. While admitting that many players come to college from problematic home backgrounds it seems that colleges and universities are having a difficult time grappling with the same old problems of alcohol and drug use that generations of students before now have dealt with.
Anyone wanting to work in high school and college sports, whether as a coach or administrator, must become attuned to the problems associated with substance abuse. Ignoring or downplaying these problems is a recipe for disaster. Coaches and administrators talk about giving people second chances. Where to draw the line involves very difficult decisions.
Alcohol and drug abuse are major problems on college campuses among both athletes and non-athletes. All sport coaches and administrators have no choice other than to confront these problems. These kinds of ethical issues are central to the studies pursued by students at the United States Sports Academy. For more information on the Academy go to http://ussa.edu.
[i] NELSON, T. F, & WECHSLER, H. (2001). Alcohol and College Athletes. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., 33(1). 43-47.