College Athletes and Substance Use: A Look at Drug Use by Gender and Sport

Table of Contents

College-level sporting events have become a mass cultural phenomenon in the United States, and the dramatic competition between aspiring student athletes has riveted the attention of millions of fans. With college football games rivaling the NFL in viewership and brackets attracting bettors across the nation, the enduring popularity of college sports has made its stars into role models for young athletes with hopes of one day reaching the major leagues.

But there’s a darker side to collegiate athletics, and one that aspiring student athletes likely wouldn’t want to emulate: a level of drug and alcohol use among players that’s startlingly frequent and widespread. Headline-making suspensions, like those of Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Michigan State’s Eron Harris for driving while intoxicated, represent merely a fraction of this problem. Substance abuse is already commonplace among full-time college students: 22.3% report having recently used illicit substances.But college-level athletes, renowned as paragons of physical ability, do not always show an overall lower level of substance use than their non-athlete peers; instead, rates of alcohol and drug use among players are often greater.

We’ve analyzed the most recent statistics on substance use among college and university student athletes to get a better picture of the types of substances used, the sports in which players use them the most, and how this varies across gender and race. Read on to discover the true scale of drug and alcohol use by collegiate athletes.

A 2014 survey on substance use among college athletes revealed findings that were stunning. Alcohol use, defined as self-reported drinking within the past 30 days, is notably higher among student athletes than the American population. Given the harmful effects of alcohol on the body and brain, the markedly high prevalence of drinking among these top athletes comes as a surprise.

However, this trend is hardly the same for every substance. Cigarette smoking, reported recently by 21.3% of the general population, is only seen among 5% of these college athletes – more than a fourfold difference. Smoking has a well-established and direct impact on respiratory health, causing inflammation, reduced lung capacity, lung damage, and a greater susceptibility to respiratory infections such as colds and the flu. These athletes, who regularly work at the extremes of their physical capabilities, could be more likely to notice a visibly negative effect on their performance than most Americans would.

When it comes to marijuana, 10.1% of college athletes reported use compared to 7.5% of the general population – a difference of only 2.6% Recent cocaine use is even less frequent for both groups, occurring at a rate of 0.6% for Americans and 0.7% for collegiate athletes.

However, spit tobacco use shows a stark difference: Only 3.4% of Americans used chewing tobacco or dipping tobacco within the past 30 days, but 11.5% of athletes reported doing so. Smokeless tobacco has become a deeply ingrained cultural aspect of baseball, widely used by major league, minor league, and even high school players. Many NFL players are known to use chewing tobacco as well. Using dip or chew can be associated with stroke and other cardiovascular risks that come with nicotine use, along with the development of potentially fatal oral, head, and neck cancers. Some players who have died of cancer, such as baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, have attributed their illness to the use of smokeless tobacco.

College athlete substance use illustration based on gender

The athletic programs and sports offered to men and women by institutions participating in a collegiate sports organization show some minor differences, such as women’s softball replacing men’s baseball and field hockey for women replacing football for men. But trends in substance use by male and female college-level players show many similarities. Data reported for the years 2005, 2009, and 2013 show a consistently high rate of alcohol use over the past 12 months by collegiate players, peaking at over 80% for both men and women in 2009 before only very slightly declining in 2013.

Use of cigarettes has remained steady for men over the studied time period, but it has declined substantially for women, from 16% in 2005 to only 6% in 2013. While little change has been seen over time for both genders, past-year marijuana usage is consistently almost five percentage points higher for men. And for smokeless tobacco, this difference widens considerably: Over 20% of men reported past-year chewing or dipping tobacco use compared with less than 3% of women, possibly due to cultural associations with baseball (and football) but not softball. While nearly twice as many male athletes reported using cocaine in the past year as female athletes, this number remained below 5% for both.

College athlete substance use illustration of men's sport

Using survey data compiled by the largest college athletics association, we’ve compared the usage rates of various substances in several men’s college sports, showing which substances are the most strongly represented within a sport and which sports’ athletes have the highest substance use rates altogether.

Regarding rates of drug and alcohol usage, lacrosse is firmly in the lead, followed by ice hockey. These two sports show the highest levels of alcohol use: 96.8% of ice hockey players drank within the past year, as well as 93.1% of lacrosse players. And with 46.3% of lacrosse players reporting past-year marijuana use, they far exceeded any other sport for usage of this drug – only swimming, at 32.7%, comes close.

While you might expect baseball players to lead in smokeless tobacco usage, ice hockey surprisingly comes first, with nearly half of players – 49.4% – reporting past-year use of dip or chew, compared to 47.2% for baseball. Together, ice hockey or lacrosse represent the highest usage levels for every substance studied. Lacrosse was the sport where players were the most likely to have used cigarettes in the past year (24.5%), cocaine (10.5%), and even synthetic marijuana (4%).

At the lower end, men’s basketball and track athletes reported the lowest alcohol use at only 71.6% and 72.5%, respectively. Track athletes also showed the lowest marijuana use (18.2%), followed by basketball (19%).

College athlete substance use illustration of women's sport

Altogether, women’s college sports show substantially less drug and alcohol use than men’s sports. However, the patterns and trends in use of specific substances can be very similar. Among women, ice hockey shows the most overall substance use, and only narrowly edges out lacrosse, with lacrosse (95.2%) and ice hockey (92.6%) exhibiting the highest levels of past-year alcohol use in women’s programs. Women’s basketball and track rank near last for total substance use – only gymnasts reported less overall usage.

Surprisingly, women’s soccer, tennis, and basketball players all show a greater prevalence of past-year alcohol use than participants in men’s programs. At the same time, marijuana was used less frequently by women than men across all sports, with women’s ice hockey players exhibiting the greatest level of use (25.3%). Cigarette smoking was most common among lacrosse players (16.7%) followed by softball players, and ice hockey was once again the top sport for smokeless tobacco use (11.8%).

College athlete substance use illustration based on Race and ethnicity

Substantial variations in drug and alcohol usage aren’t seen only among different sports, but also among races and ethnicities of student athletes as well. White players exhibited the most overall substance usage, showing the highest level of past-year alcohol use (85%), second-greatest marijuana use (22.7%), second-greatest smokeless tobacco use (19.2%), and second-greatest cigarette use (11.8%). Cigarettes (15.9%) and smokeless tobacco (19.8%) were used the most by American Indian or Alaska Native players.

Conversely, black or African American players showed the lowest substance use altogether, as well as the lowest rates of alcohol consumption (64.8%), smokeless tobacco use, and cigarette use. Hispanic players had the lowest rate of past-year marijuana use (16.6%), followed by black or African American players (18.4%).

Finding Help for Quitting Drugs and Alcohol

Drug and alcohol abuse may be startlingly common among college athletes, but make no mistake: Students who use these substances are endangering their well-being and athletic ability. And as players governed by the rules and regulations of a sporting organization, they’re risking their career aspirations as well. Drug and alcohol addiction can be a roadblock to your ambitions, but there’s hope for recovery. At Rehabs.com, you can find professional addiction treatment and therapy that’s tailored to your needs. With qualified advice and care, you can achieve freedom from substance abuse. Contact Rehabs.com today at 1-888-287-0471 , and find hope in your future.

Methodology

Statistics on self-reported substance use among college-level players was obtained from the National Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student Athletes of 2014. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health of 2013 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offered figures on nationwide drug and alcohol usage rates as well as college students’ substance usage rates.

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Sources

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