Some doe-eyed sports fans—or at least people who didn’t really follow the NBA, MLB, or Dutch cycling in the 80s—like to assume that athletes are overwhelmingly clean and sober folks who walk the straight and narrow in their life, since their bodies are what keep the cash coming in.
And not that we want to shatter any illusions here, but we’ll let you in on a secret: That’s not always the case. In fact, athletes who play certain sports might actually be more prone to developing addictions, according to a recent study from the University of Alberta. You know those scenes of debauchery that inevitably accompany the winning of the Stanley Cup, and the trophy’s many adventures in being filled with all types of alcohol? Yeah, that’s what we’re getting at.
In the study, scientists at the school interviewed people with a background in sports who were recovering from struggles with addiction. (All participants received treatment for their addiction as well.) The researchers graded their participants in terms of athletic intensity, from weekend warriors to elite professionals. When the researchers tallied up the results, they found that while several sports were represented—from gymnastics and martial arts to rowing and dance—the sports with the highest rates of addiction tended to be team sports, like hockey. (Again: Canadian study.)
The researchers theorized that it’s the culture of team sports that leads to substance abuse, to the point that “there is an apparent prevalence of substance abuse in sports settings.” In turn, that prevalence poses a “heightened risk of addiction” for people who are already psychologically prone to addiction.
“[Team sport] cultures are quite machismo and the pressures on the young people are quite high,” said Alex Clark, R.N., Ph.D., a professor in the Faculty of Nursing, who helped with the study. “Coaches turn a blind eye and some actively encourage the team-ship that’s based on a work-hard, play-hard culture.”
Other factors that made team-based sports favor so heavily in substance abuse: Pervasive hyper-competiveness (which can lead addicts to becoming the best damn addict they can be), and injuries or natural decline in ability (which can often cause athletes to spiral into depression.)