Cognitive Daily

Athletics and drug abuse

My favorite bike shop has a photo of bicyclists lighting up cigarettes for each other as they rode along during a 1920s stage of the Tour de France. After getting over our astonishment that they can actually manage to light cigarettes without even getting off their bikes, we look at the photo today and think “how could those riders not know what those cigarettes were doing to their lungs?”

Surely today’s athletes know that using drugs ranging from nicotine to alcohol to cocaine can seriously impair their ability to perform in competition, don’t they? Supporters of scholastic athletics point to evidence that seems to show that athletes get better grades and have lower rates of substance abuse compared to the rest of the school-age population, but the actual results are mixed: while most studies have found lower use of cigarettes, marijuana, and cocaine among adolescent student athletes, they have also found higher use of alcohol, steroids, and smokeless tobacco.

Michele Moore and Chad Werch suspected that some of the reason for the varied study results may be that different sports may be associated with different types of substance use. They surveyed 891 Florida 8th graders, asking them not only what drugs they used (and verifying reports of alcohol use with a saliva test), but also what sports they participated in and whether they competed in interscholastic athletics.

Their first interesting result had little to do with athletics at all: general substance use statistics

Alcohol use
Heavy drinking
Cigarette use
Marijuana use

It was a surprise to me that black 8th graders had a lower incidence of substance use than whites, across the board. Next the researchers analyzed which specific sports were associated with specific substance use. They found different results for different sports, and even different results for same-sport-different-gender athletes. For example, male swimmers were more likely than other males drink heavily, but female swimmers were not. Female skateboarders were more likely than other females to smoke marijuana, but male skateboarders were not.

There were some sports which were associated with lower substance use than among nonparticipants, including basketball, cheerleading, and swimming out of school. However, for sports where a significant correlation was found, in most cases the association was a negative one.

While this study is neither experimental nor longitudinal, and therefore cannot make any solid conclusions about whether sports participation causes substance use or abuse, Moore and Werch do speculate on some of the causes. Skateboarding, as a male-dominated sport, may lead females to be negatively influenced by the males in the group. For males, school-sponsored sports tend to be associated with more substance use, whereas female substance use is associated more often with out-of-school sports. It’s possible that the macho ethos of male-dominated sports such as wrestling and football contributes to substance use among male athletes.

Whether or not participation in athletics causes substance use and abuse in middle-schoolers, this study certainly throws a new light on the arguments of those who claim that sports participation helps “build character” or creates “solid citizens.” And, like the early athletes in the Tour de France, we can’t assume that kids know that these substances may impair their performance in their chosen sports. What they may need is more education about the negative impact of their drug of choice.

Moore, M.J. & Werch, C.E. (2005). Sport and physical activity participation and substance use among adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 486-493.


  1. #1 memer
    September 13, 2005

    “It was a surprise to me that black 8th graders had a lower incidence of substance use than whites, across the board. “

    Why? Just askin.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    September 13, 2005

    Why? Just askin.

    Clearly this just reflects my ignorance on the subject. I’m glad to have it corrected.

    If I had to venture a guess, I’d say my false impression might have been fueled by mainstream media reporting on drug use, but it’d still be a guess.

  3. #3 worth of me
    September 28, 2005

    If people want to compete in their sport they should not take andy substances to help them win.

  4. #4 Dave
    October 18, 2005

    Are you a racist or somethin?

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    October 18, 2005

    Dave, why do you ask? It’s not generally an accusation one tosses about without some pretty serious evidence.

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    October 18, 2005

    I’ve done some serious thinking about the implications of Dave and Memer’s comments and decided that a more substantive response is in order.

    In retrospect, I’d have to say that my original statement of “surprise” about drug use among black and white youth could certainly suggest that I am racist. That wasn’t my intention, but I can see how someone might have come away with that impression. My hope, when I made the statement, was to emphasize the misconceptions that many people—even myself—have about differences between races, and to show that the only way to improve our knowledge about racial differences and similarities is to do careful research. I’m sorry if that’s not the point I conveyed.

    The only true racist is one who maintains his or her ignorance about racial differences when confronted with the facts. Sadly, throughout history, too many people have done—and continue to do—just that.

  7. #7 Jennifer
    November 8, 2005

    I would like to know your views on drug abuse in sports and the reasons for and against

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    November 8, 2005

    I don’t usually go into my personal opinions much here on Cognitive Daily (and you can see what happens when I do). However, on my personal blog, I do so quite regularly. As it happens, I did write a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post on drugs and sports a while back.

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