Physical Activity May Disguise Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among Student Athletes

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Philip Veliz on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumble
Philip Veliz on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumble

Wondering how to select the best sport for your son or daughter? While parents often consider their children’s natural talents and inclinations, IRWG Assistant Research Professor Philip Veliz says it’s also important to know that some sports more frequently correlate with drug and alcohol abuse than others.

In three recent articles, Veliz adds to his string of studies examining adolescent boys and girls and how participation in interscholastic sports influences their daily lives, now and over time, especially with regard to the use of alcohol and recreational drugs. Veliz’s finely tuned research, based on either a longitudinal national database, Monitoring the Future, or a web-based Student Life Survey administered at a large Midwestern university since 1999, draws important distinctions among the most popular sports, showing that some sports, such cross-country and tennis, are more likely to promote a healthy life style while others can have more negative effects. His research distinguishes itself from related studies that draw blanket conclusions about all sports participation. Instead, Veliz pays close attention to differences among popular high-school sports. His findings have drawn the attention of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumble,” which will feature Veliz in an upcoming episode.

"Participation in Organized Competitive Sports and Physical Activity among US Adolescents: Assessment of a Public Health Resource,” appearing in Health Behavior and Policy Review (November, 2014) and coauthored with Don Sabo of D’Youville College, shows that adolescents who participated in at least one competitive sport in the past year are likely to be more physically active than nonparticipants. While sports participants generally enjoy at least 60 minutes of physical activity, spread over 1.5 days each week—even in the off season— those who participate in track and field, baseball/softball, basketball, weightlifting, or lacrosse are far more likely to engage in physical activity for more hours throughout the week than adolescents participating in other competitive sports or no sports at all.

Despite these overall positive findings about sports participation, in “Examining Potential Substance Use Disorders among Former Interscholastic Athletes,” which appears online in Substance Abuse, Veliz and his coauthor, IRWG Research Associate Professor Sean Esteban McCabe, find that adolescents involved in competitive school-sponsored sports are more likely to suffer alcohol-abuse disorders in young adulthood (ages 18-30) than peers who did not participate in sports. No such correlation was seen for drug abuse disorders.

In a separate anaylsis of individual sports, Veliz found crew and football are especially associated with later alcohol abuse, while lacrosse figures prominently with drug abuse. The authors recommend that sports organizations monitor student athletes for potential substance-use problems. In a retrospective paper, entitled “Opioid Use Among Interscholastic Sports Participants: An Exploratory Study From a Sample of College Students,” which appears in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport (December, 2014), Veliz and Michigan coauthors Quyen Epstein-Ngo, Elizabeth Austic, Carol Boyd, and Sean Esteban McCabe found some association between previous involvement in interscholastic sports and prescription opioid use and misuse. Findings showed that high-school athletes had greater odds for lifetime medical prescription opioid use on multiple occasions and greater odds for being approached to divert their prescribed opioid medications on multiple occasions when compared with their peers who did not participate in interscholastic sports during high school.

Veliz and his coauthors find that while high-school sports participation generally enhances quality of life and health, negative side effects may also result, depending on the sport. Veliz urges educators to be cognizant of the risks associated with interscholastic sports at the high-school level.

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