The National Football League recently sanctioned a star quarterback for off-the-field behavior not befitting the “higher standards” the league expects from its players.
Conceptually, one of the factors behind higher standards for athletes is the perception that professional athletes serve as role models for admirers, especially children and teens.
However, this perception may not be accurate. A new UK study finds the loutish and drunken behavior of some of our sporting heroes has little or no effect on the drinking habits of young people.
Researchers at the Universities of Manchester, UK, and Western Sydney, Australia, say their findings — published in Drug and Alcohol Review — contradict the idea that sports stars act as role models for those who follow sports.
“The perceived drinking habits of sports stars and its relationship to the drinking levels of young people has never been examined empirically, despite these sporting heroes often being touted as influential role models for young people,” said lead researcher Dr. Kerry O’Brien, a lecturer in Manchester’s School of Psychological Sciences.
“Our research shows that young people, both sporting participants and non-sporting participants, don’t appear to be influenced by the drinking habits of high-profile sportspeople as depicted in the mass media.”
Dr. O’Brien and his colleagues, pointing to previous research, suggest that sports stars are much more likely to influence the drinking behavior of fans when used as marketing tools by the alcohol industry, such as through sponsorship deals.
The research team asked more than 1,000 young sportspeople at elite and amateur level and non-sportspeople to report the perceived drinking behavior of high-profile sport stars compared with their friends, and then report their own drinking behavior using the World Health Organizations Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test.
The researchers found that both sporting and non-sporting study participants believed that sports stars actually drank significantly less than themselves but that their own friends drank considerably more.
After accounting for other potential factors, sports stars’ drinking was not predictive of young sportspeople’s own drinking, and was actually predictive of lower levels of drinking in non-sportspeople – the more alcohol non-sportspeople perceived sports stars to drink, the less they actually drank themselves.
Young people’s own drinking was instead strongly related to the overestimation of their friends’ drinking and, in sportspeople only, to sport-specific cultural habits, such as the drinking with competitors after games.
Dr. O’Brien added: “Sport administrators, like the Football Association, are very quick to condemn and punish individual sport stars for acting as poor role models when they are caught displaying drunken and loutish behavior. But there is much stronger evidence for a relationship between alcohol-industry sponsorship, advertising and marketing within sport and hazardous drinking among young people than there is for the influence of sports stars drinking.
“We are not suggesting that sports stars should not be encouraged to drink responsibly but it’s disingenuous to place the blame on them for setting the bad example. It is time that sport administrators consider their own social responsibilities when weighing up the costs and benefits of using their sports and sport stars to market alcohol on behalf of the alcohol industry.”
Source: University of Manchester