What’s the Deal with Jocks and Booze?

By Dirk Hanson 06/01/11

Athletes and alcoholics may share the same appetite for competitive, risk-taking behaviors.

Team sports and alcohol go together.
Photo via mutineermagazine

It’s no secret that young athletes like to drink. As a form of celebration, as the cement for team bonding, as stress reliever and pain reliever, alcohol’s use in organized sports is notorious, as our recent post about the death of NHL star Derek Boogaard attests. Now a major new study of statistics collected over the years by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), published in the journal Addiction, shows that the drinking part of sports makes itself known early in the game, so to speak. Researchers crunched the numbers from NIDA surveys that followed high school seniors up to the age of 26. With data on almost 12,000 students, the researchers found that being involved in team sports did in fact mean more drinking, and that high school seniors who reported the heaviest drinking remained the heaviest drinkers at 26—a point in young adulthood when, presumably, most jocks have retired from amateur team sports. (The study did not find a similar correlation between drinking and simple exercise.)

Yvonne Terry-McElrath of the University of Michigan, one of the study authors, said that several theories for this connection are being debated. There are obvious influences, such as the social activities of the team, and peer pressure leading to heavy drinking in post-game environments. Another influence may simply be drug testing, which generally exempts alcohol. But some researchers think the connection may be more direct: The kind of people who respond to the high-stress, high-risk environment of athletic competition may also be, genetically, the same kind of young, bored thrill-seekers who take up heavy drinking at a young age. “Their competitive spirit on the athletic field may translate over into drinking behaviors as well,” said a researcher at Georgetown University. Terry-McElrath noted that people who “tend to be high drug-users often can’t keep up in a really competitive environment.” There have been plenty of high-profile sports busts lately, but most of them involve alcohol, rather than heroin or prescription painkillers. So the connection between jocks and alcoholics begins to come clear: Quite often, they are one and the same person.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]