Sports  To drink or not to drink

Why some university athletes may be hesitant to take to the cup

McGill students are well aware that, while thousands of dollars are going towards tuition and housing costs, thousands more are being blown at the SAQ or local dep. For the most part, they are okay with that. Between Frosh, Carnival, and the average Thursday night at Tokyo, alcohol is a major part of university life at McGill and across the world. For the most part the health risks involved in alcohol use at universities are not life threatening. People manage to show up to class hung-over and are relatively functional. However, Canadian universities – including McGill – are breeding grounds for high-level athletes, and this drinking culture is not conducive to creating a world-class athlete.

Habitual binge drinking among professional athletes is mostly a thing of the past. In England, some of the most successful soccer players of the 1960s and 1970s had serious drinking problems. Immediately, the name George Best comes to mind. He was the Northern Irish soccer player who was named the best player on the planet in 1967 and famously said, “In 1969, I gave up alcohol – it was the worst twenty minutes of my life.” Best died at age fifty-nine of liver failure. The stories of Best and other soccer players who struggled with alcoholism, have helped to make drinking culture in England – and across the world – a thing of the past.

With the increasingly cut-throat nature of competitive sports, athletes will do anything to get a step up on their opponents. For professional athletes today that means giving up alcohol or, at least, binge drinking. Nowadays there are very few cases of professional athletes with alcohol problems. In university athletics, however, this is an entirely different story.

University athletes are younger than the average professional athlete and their career span is much shorter. For most university athletes, their competitive playing career will end at around 22 or 23, when they finish their undergraduate education. This means they worry less about their long-term future, and their entire focus is on the four years they spend playing at the university level.

However, there are a few university athletes who do want to compete at higher levels like in the Olympics or the Canadian Football League, and the culture of drinking at a university that many of their teammates end up participating in could seriously damage their future aspirations.

The heavy drinking culture associated with university life is often exacerbated at the varsity athletics level. A study conducted by Frank Butts at the University of West Georgia suggests that university athletes on average have 5.07 drinks every weekend, while their none-athletic counterparts have only 3.5 drinks per weekend. These are athletes who train on what is usually a daily basis and require their bodies to be in top physical condition.

The main explanation for the increased alcohol consumption of university athletes can be attributed to post-game celebrations and the sense of camaraderie that comes with being part of a competitive team. Again, for the majority of university athletes, drinking will just be part of their university experience, in the same way being part of a varsity team is. For others, they may be forced to choose between risking their future ambitions or forgoing what seems like a typical university experience.

Five former and current McGill students were represented at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, and the Canadian Football League usually recruits a few graduates of the McGill varsity team every year. These athletes are not just competing for four years; they are making their living by competing. The athletes they will be up against that are coming from non-university backgrounds will probably not be training under this same binge-drinking environment that occurs at universities. In order to compete at this same level, these McGill athletes will be either forced to forgo or overcome the heavy drinking culture that comes with university.

Several universities have tried to stop the drinking culture within varsity sports, but reversing a culture is not easy and is potentially more harmful than effective. Queens University forced its baseball team to forfeit its final two games against Wilfrid Laurier University last year after members of the team were drinking on the bus ride home from an away game. The move was met with harsh criticism from both the team and the larger student body. Their argument was that these students are just like any others and should not be under stricter regulations just because they play on a varsity team.

Alcohol has always and will always be a part of university life, and students should have the right to fully experience their time at university regardless of whether or not they represent the school in a varsity sport. However, for the small minority of athletes who will go on to compete at the highest level of competition, this drinking culture has the potential to be a major hurdle in both their personal and professional lives.