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Athletes and Alcoholism

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Why is Alcoholism so Common Among Athletes?

Statistics show that athletes have a higher risk of developing drug and alcohol addiction. The risk is even higher for athletes participating in team sports.

Despite their focus on good health, athletes often suffer from sport-related stress and pressure.

While some athletes turn to drugs or alcohol for social acceptance or performance reasons, others develop a drug addiction after an injury.

Professional and non-professional sports leagues recognize the problem and often administer routine drug screenings. But most of the prevention focus is on prescription and non-prescription drugs, not alcohol.

Unfortunately, this means many athletes struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD) do not receive necessary treatment.

Athletes have a high risk of abusing alcohol for several reasons. For example, to:

1. Cope with Mental Illness

Like non-athletes, many athletes have untreated mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. Some athletes with these disorders turn to alcohol to self-medicate. This eventually leads to substance abuse and/or addiction. 

2. Deal with Emotional Pressure

Athletes face large-scale external and internal pressure to succeed. This pressure is related to their athletic performance.

Student athletes face pressure to maintain good academic standings while also staying in peak physical condition. For some, the pressure becomes too much, so they turn to substances to cope.

3. Deal with Early-Age Retirement

Substance abuse is also a problem for retired athletes. 

Many athletes rely on their sport to give them an identity. Because of this, they struggle when they retire. In some cases, they turn to alcohol to cope with the emptiness they might feel when they no longer play the sport. 

4. Face Peer Pressure

Team athletes spend a significant amount of time with their teammates. If their teammates drink a lot, the pressure to resist drinking becomes difficult. In severe cases, an alcohol-friendly environment in the locker room eventually leads to alcohol addiction. 

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Athletes and Alcoholism Statistics

Alcohol use is widespread among athletes at all levels. For example, between 71 and 93 percent of male college athletes report drinking alcohol in the last year.1

More than 50 percent of professional football players in the U.S. have used opiates at some point in their career. And, more than 7 percent of that 50 percent report misusing drugs at some point in career.1

How Alcohol Affects Athletic Performance

An occasional night out drinking with friends has minimal effects on the average person. But, it can adversely impact an athlete’s performance. 

Just one or two drinks can noticeably affect an athlete on the field or court unless the alcohol has completely left their body prior to playing. Even then, there may be residual effects on performance for up to 24 hours. 

Athletes with alcoholism face severe consequences, including:

  • Job loss
  • Early retirement due to performance or health issues
  • Suspensions
  • Moderate to severe health problems
  • Issues with memory, learning, and coordination
  • Neurological damage

According to one study, the most common symptoms linked to acute alcohol misuse include:

  • Decreased strength output
  • Muscle cramps and pain
  • Decreased muscle protein synthesis 

Drinking isn’t just detrimental before an athletic competition. A study ultimately concluded that athletes “should remain wary of ingesting alcohol following intense exercise. They should instead focus on effective dietary strategies proven to enhance recovery.”2

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Student Athletes and Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is an issue for all young people, including student athletes. In part, this is due to social factors. Athletes spend a significant amount of time with their teammates. If their teammates drink, they are more likely to drink as well.

Student athletes also face a lot of pressure regarding their athletic and academic performance. Some turn to alcohol to deal with stress.

Student athletes who are also heavy drinkers are more likely to experience unintentional, alcohol-related injuries. Sometimes these are season- or career-ending injuries.

Heavy drinking also leads to hangovers. Hangover symptoms like headaches, nausea, and tiredness reduce athletic performance significantly.

Binge drinking is also an issue with student athletes. Young people tend to drink less frequently than adults, but they generally consume more alcohol in one session of drinking (binging).

Binge drinking carries a significantly increased risk of:

  • Killing someone, usually due to a car crash from drunk driving
  • Suicide
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Inflammation of the stomach, pancreas, brain, or spinal cord
  • Unsafe sex
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Involvement with police3

Parents and educators can do the following to reduce alcohol-related risks faced by student athletes:

  • Provide non-judgmental feedback on athletic and academic performance
  • Challenge positive attitudes towards alcohol use
  • Explain how alcohol interferes with athletic performance
  • Teach harm-reduction strategies
  • Create comprehensive alcohol policies in athletic departments
  • Host alcohol-free events
  • Limit alcohol accessibility
  • Train student athletes in intervention strategies
  • Teach healthy stress management skills
  • Set high academic standards
  • Make access to alcohol rehab easy

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Athletes Who Have Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder

Many professional athletes have overcome alcohol and drug addiction. There are many in NFL history, NBA history, and in other sports who struggled with a drinking problem or addiction to drugs. 

In many cases, these athletes developed an addiction to two or more substances. Some share their experience with alcohol rehab in hopes that it will help others. 

These athletes include:

John Daly

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Professional PGA golfer with alcoholism and gambling addiction.

Lawrence Taylor

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Former NFL player who misused alcohol and cocaine.

Josh Hamilton

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MLB professional baseball player who suffered from alcohol and cocaine addiction that affected his career.

Brett Favre

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Former NFL player who abused prescription opioids during his career and was temporarily banned from the NFL in 1996 for alcohol use.

Lamar Odom

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Former NBA player who suffered from crack cocaine and marijuana addiction.

What to Do About Alcohol Abuse Among Athletes

There are several ways to ensure athletes receive the care they need for addiction problems. 

Some of these things reduce the ongoing risk of addiction. Others help with the recovery process. 

They include:

  • Access to traditional alcohol rehab and treatment methods, including inpatient, outpatient, 12-step programs, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and motivational interviewing. Some treatment centers specialize in treating athletes.
  • Support for co-occurring disorders, many of which are linked to alcoholism. Co-occurring conditions include anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.
  • Access to pain-management therapies, including acupuncture, massage, and yoga.
  • Substance testing for drugs and alcohol. 
  • Access to additional resources that help people understand their triggers and how to manage them.

For student athletes, the best resources are good examples from their coaches and involved parents who don’t drink, or rarely drink responsibly.

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Updated on March 4, 2022
8 sources cited
  1. Reardon, Claudia, and Shane Creado. “Drug Abuse in Athletes.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, vol. 5, Aug. 2014, pp. 95–105.
  2. Vella, Luke D., and David Cameron-Smith. “Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery.” Nutrients, vol. 2, no. 8, 27 July 2010, pp. 781–789. 
  3. The Dangers of Binge Drinking - Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center.” Rochester.edu, 2019. 
  4. Best Practices to Address Student-Athlete Alcohol Abuse.” NCAA.org.  
  5. NIAAA Task Force: A Call to Action.” www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov.
  6. Reardon, Claudia, and Shane Creado. “Drug Abuse in Athletes.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, vol. 5, Aug. 2014, pp. 95–105. 
  7. 5 Things about Opioid Abuse among Athletes.” AJMC. 
  8. Opioid Addiction: MedlinePlus Genetics.” Medlineplus.gov, 18 Aug. 2020.

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