PRC Resources

Risky Drinking among Intercollegiate and Intramural College Athletes

College athletes are at high risk of heavy drinking as compared to non-athlete students.  A recent study by the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation along with the University of Iowa and other institutes examined the drinking behavior of college athletes in more detail.  In particular, the study compared the behavior of intercollegiate l and intramural athletes. Findings show that intercollegiate athletes drink less frequently but are more likely to drink at larger quantities when they do drink. Intramural athletes reported consistently drinking more at all levels of consumption.

Heavy drinking by college and university students remains a significant concern on campuses throughout the United States. While the results of previous studies vary, the findings remain consistent: college student-athletes are at higher risk than their non-athlete peers for heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems.  The current study analyzed data obtained in 2009 and 2011 from students at 14 public universities in California.  A sample of 16,745 students responded to questionnaires. Students were asked how often and how much alcohol they consumed.  The respondents were asked about the settings where they most commonly drank (such as at fraternity parties, at an off campus party or in an outdoor setting, like a park). Many of these settings can be particularly risky places for drinking. They were also asked whether they participated in athletics on either an intercollegiate or intramural team.

The distinction between the two kinds of athletic involvement was hypothesized to be important in predicting drinking behavior. Intramural programs are open to every member of the college campus and usually offer varying levels of competitiveness and of competitors, and a range of sports from traditional (e.g., soccer and volleyball) to nontraditional (e.g., flag football, kickball). On the other hand, intercollegiate athletes consistently have structured, mandatory times to interact with each other (e.g., practices, weight room workouts, away-game traveling, and meal times) that provide team-building situations. They are often recruited to their universities to participate in sports, and they normally make a strong commitment to the role of an athlete.

The majority of the student sample was non-athletes (85.3%) while intramural/club athletes made up 11.8% and intercollegiate athletes were 2.9%. Among the survey respondents, over half were female (58.2), nearly half were over the age of 21 (48.5%) and identified as non-Hispanic White (47.1%). Over half (54.2%) reported consuming alcohol within the last 28 days, and respondents reported drinking an average of 3.4 days during the last 28 days. In both age groups (under 21 and 21 years or over), more intramural/club and intercollegiate athletes were current drinkers than non-athletes.

The intercollegiate athletes reported drinking less frequently compared with intramural/club athletes but consume larger quantities when they do drink. Intramural/club athletes reported consistently consuming alcohol at all levels, from lower risk (e.g., 1–2 drinks per occasion) to much higher risk (e.g., 8–9 drinks per occasion). Intramural/club athletes drank more frequently than non-athletes at fraternity and sorority parties, at on-campus parties, off-campus, at bars, and outdoors. Intercollegiate athletes drank more frequently than non-athletes at Greek parties and on-campus parties but 35% less frequently outdoors.

The fact that intramural/club athletes in the study were more likely to drink in a greater variety of drinking settings considered high risk may result from the fact that they have fewer time constraints than intercollegiate athletes and their motivation for sports participation may be more social than athletic. Given that drinking at high levels can lead to increased risky behaviors (e.g., driving drunk or walking alone back to campus), the findings suggest that intramural/club athletes are at greater risk than their intercollegiate counterparts to develop dangerous drinking behaviors that can last beyond college.

Lead author, Miesha Marzell, stated, “The data suggest that while patterns of alcohol use may differ, both groups are at risk for intoxication and alcohol-related problems, such as driving under the influence, sexual victimization, intentional or unintentional injury, and death.  This is a worrisome pattern that warrants attention by colleges and universities.”  

Over half of the sample was under the age of 21.  Dr. Marzell went on to say, “The fact that students under 21 also drank at risky levels and in high-risk drinking settings should be a message to colleges and college communities that attention to underage drinking is needed. Clearly, it is important not only for campuses and communities to have appropriate policies and established systems, such as age identification, compliance checks, keg registration, and dram shop liability, but enforcement is also imperative.”

Source: Marzell, M., Morrison, C., Mair, C., Moynihan, S., & Gruenewald, P. (2014). Examining drinking patterns and high-risk drinking environments among college athletes at different competition levels. Journal of Drug Issues 1, 1-10.