Sober Solutions

January 29, 2015
A new initiative called 360 Proof is hoping to reduce alcohol abuse among student-athletes at NCAA Division III schools. Gustavus Adolphus College was involved in the pilot program.
By Kari Eckheart

Kari Eckheart is Assistant Athletics Director for Student-Athlete Services and Senior Woman Administrator at Gustavus Adolphus College. She serves on the NCAA Student-Athlete Affairs Advisory Group and is the former Head Women's Volleyball Coach and Outreach Coordinator in the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education at Gustavus. She can be reached at: [email protected].

Addressing the issue of alcohol use among college student-athletes is certainly not a new idea. After all, the NCAA's National Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes was first conducted in 1985, with its eighth edition coming out earlier this year. And NCAA CHOICES grants, which seek to educate students about the risks involved with the misuse of alcohol, have been available since 1991.

What is new, however, is a collaborative program being tackled at the NCAA Division III level to bring better solutions to the table. Begun in 2011 and slated to fully launch in January 2015, the project entails partnering with the Small College and Universities Division of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) and has a goal of helping the NCAA's smallest member institutions tackle the problem of alcohol abuse among student-athletes.

As Assistant Athletics Director for Student-Athlete Services at Gustavus Adolphus College, I have been involved in the initiative on both the national and local levels. Along with serving on one of the project's working subgroups, I have implemented many of the program's ideas on our campus here in St. Peter, Minn.

According to findings from the 2013 Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes, presented at the 2014 NCAA Convention, drinking among student-athletes is declining in several categories. In looking at excessive drinking, which the study defines as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women, both genders show a decrease. In 2013, 33 percent of female athletes and 44 percent of male athletes reported that they drank excessively at least once in the past year compared to 41 percent and 63 percent, respectively, in 2005. There is also a decline among males who are problematic drinkers, which is defined in the study as 10 or more drinks in a row, from 29 percent in 2005 to 18 percent in 2013. (The figure for women, three percent, remained unchanged between the two studies.)

While this is good news overall, the large percentages are still concerning for colleges and their athletics departments. We know that student-athletes who drink excessively experience many negative consequences, from physical injuries to diminished academics and poor athletic performance. These repercussions can not only impact the athlete but also their team, the athletics department, and the institution.

Over the past few years, there has been much discussion in NCAA Division III on how to more effectively prevent alcohol abuse among our student-athletes. To help with this challenge, the NCAA began talking with the NASPA Small Colleges and Universities Division and the two groups agreed to a formal partnership in 2011. The goal of the union was to establish an integrated model for on-campus collaborations between student affairs and athletics professionals as a better way to deliver effective alcohol and drug education for all students.

The initiative is specifically aimed at smaller institutions in Division III. Recognizing that these schools often lack financial and staff resources to support alcohol prevention and intervention programs, the partnership identified a need for a free, comprehensive, and ready-to-go program.

This marked the first time the NCAA has formed a formal collaboration with a national student affairs organization. "We reached out to NASPA, and they were very excited about the partnership," says Dan Dutcher, NCAA Division III Vice President. "Why wouldn't we want to leverage their expertise on how to deal with a student-wide issue and customize portions of it for student-athletes?"

Program development began with the creation of a steering committee and a working group. The steering committee defined an overall vision and commissioned a review of existing literature. The working group was divided into two subgroups--content and delivery. The content group consists of expert researchers, while the delivery group--which I serve on--is made up of college representatives with experience implementing prevention programs on Division III campuses.

The end result of this work was the development of 360 Proof, a free, web-based tool designed to address overall student use of alcohol as well as student-athlete use. It consists of three main elements: a campus assessment, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism-recommended strategies, and a mechanism for individual intervention.

Now in its final stage of the pilot process, 360 Proof will be available to all Division III members in January 2015, with past pilot participants receiving access in the fall of 2014. If all goes well, we hope to expand this concept to curb abuse of other drugs and provide a template for Division I and II schools should they choose to develop something similar. Regardless of if or when your particular school gets access to 360 Proof, any athletic department can develop its own program based on what we've learned so far.

Initial research for the project found that reducing high-risk alcohol use among athletes is best accomplished by addressing the issue at three levels: campus-wide, among groups and teams, and with individual students. At the campus level, working collaboratively with colleagues is key.

Here at Gustavus Adolphus, we have been part of 360 Proof since its inception, testing various aspects of the programming. Throughout this process, we have been very intentional about bringing campus partners together to take a comprehensive approach to tackling alcohol abuse.

One of our first steps was forming a chemical health working group, which I chair, that meets twice a month to discuss current efforts in alcohol abuse prevention, what can further be done, and ways to better collaborate. Members of this group are from residential life, campus activities, campus safety, our counseling center, health services, the athletic department, the Dean of Students Office, and faculty. It also includes student representatives from the Greek community, athletics, and peer assistants programs.

When building a team, it's important to bring in people from diverse backgrounds with differing perspectives. And though working collaboratively can occasionally seem more time consuming, when people come together, the quantity and quality of results makes it worthwhile.

Our group also recognized that it's essential to get upper-level administration on board for this type of endeavor. For me, this means having ongoing communication with our Director of Athletics, Tom Brown, and the Dean of Students, Dr. JoNes VanHecke. In turn, these two individuals meet regularly with Gustavus's President and share what the school is doing to address the issue of alcohol misuse, education, and awareness.

Having high-ranking administrative involvement is vital because those colleagues can provide support and resources while also encouraging others to help you tackle the issues. In addition, when a group knows it has the backing of upper-level administrators, it tends to work harder toward achieving its goals.

Another important point when putting together a team is to include student leaders. Students help administrators look at the issue from a different perspective and offer suggestions on how to best reach their peers. In addition, they will be your biggest allies when the time comes to implement new programs.

With a collaborative team in place, the next step is identifying a school's needs. The assessment instrument used in 360 Proof is designed to help institutions understand the problem of alcohol abuse from their campus perspective by carefully surveying students and analyzing the data.

This data should include answers to the following questions:

- What percent of your student population are abstainers, moderate drinkers, excessive drinkers, or problematic drinkers?
- What is the average number of drinks consumed per student?
- Where are students drinking (residence halls, off-campus, bars)?
- What percent of students report having harmed themselves due to drinking?

While the data collection process may seem daunting, a lot of colleges already have this information through CORE or NCHA surveys. Historical data can also be obtained from past conduct or judicial cases. When people from across campus come together, it is much easier to find and share the statistics.

From there, a school needs to decipher the data and interpret how it affects their particular environment and population. For example, if most students are drinking in residence halls, a school may want to examine alternative programming within dorms or change alcohol consumption policies and their enforcement. On the other hand, if data shows a problem with off campus drinking and driving, the institution may want to create a safe driving campaign.

Defining--and possibly refining--policies and educational tactics is also important. Here are some questions the working group should consider:

- What are the campus policies regarding alcohol possession and consumption?
- What are the consequences for violating policies and do they differ based on the violation?
- Are there different policies for athletic teams, student organizations, and fraternities and sororities?
- Are alcohol policies effectively communicated to students?
- Does the school offer alcohol awareness programming?
- What kind of prevention and intervention strategies are administered on campus? And who oversees the implementation and evaluation of these programs?
- Are there customized programs for specific populations, such as first-year students, student-athletes, students in recovery, students turning 21, and so forth?

There is a lot to consider, but when campus leaders evaluate their policies and the efforts already in place, they build a critical foundation. They come away with a better idea of how to focus efforts and devise strategies specific to their student population.

Here at Gustavus Adolphus, we started the assessment phase by closely examining our population and culture. We are a residential, four-year, liberal arts college located in rural south-central Minnesota, about 75 miles southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Our 2,455 full-time students include approximately 715 athletes who compete in one or more of the 23 varsity sports we offer.

With NCAA athletes constituting 29 percent of our student population, they have a tremendous influence on campus culture. In addition, historical data showed a higher rate of alcohol-related sanctions among our student-athletes compared to non-athletes. Therefore, we decided to focus much of our alcohol education and prevention efforts on our student-athlete population.

Our overall approach was to zero in on what the school could do within the campus environment and each team to help change the culture. This meant updating alcohol policies and enforcement tactics, offering alcohol-free programming on Friday and Saturday nights, and implementing more collaborative campus initiatives.

As an example, Gustavus received a three-year CHOICES grant from the NCAA in 2007 to implement alcohol education and prevention workshops for all athletic teams. Prior to the grant, educational efforts were at the discretion of the coach. Coaches still address the issue of alcohol use and abuse with their teams, but with our enhanced educational efforts, all student-athletes receive the same information before the start of their season.

During compliance meetings, Tom Brown and I talk to all of our student-athletes about the athletic department expectations and the school-wide alcohol policy. Also, every first-year athlete attends a "Life of a Gustie Athlete" workshop, where they discuss the campus culture regarding alcohol use with peers. In addition, a campus-wide student-athlete-based social norms campaign was created to highlight the positive aspects of being a student-athlete.

Another benefit of the CHOICES grant was the availability of funding to develop alcohol-free late night programming at our athletic facility. Held from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. on select Saturday nights, these events are sponsored by specific athletic teams or student organizations and have become a popular weekend hangout.

Due to the success of these programs, they have all been institutionalized and receive funding through various sources. Data from surveys has shown that student-athletes are drinking on fewer occasions and that the number of negative consequences due to their alcohol use has decreased.

Another strategy we implemented focuses on reaching individuals directly. Offered with 360 Proof, it is called Personalized Feedback Inventory or PFI, and is a web-based assessment and feedback program. Research from the pilot program revealed that when a student partakes in PFI, it can help them reduce their drinking and cut down on related negative consequences.

The PFI consists of an online survey that analyzes a student's alcohol use, as well as any unwanted effects that may have accompanied their drinking. It's not a test and there are no right or wrong answers. Rather, it allows an individual some insight into their personal behavior.

The first section of the PFI includes a series of questions about personal alcohol use and other related behaviors. For example, the participant will see a chart for the previous week and input the number of drinks he or she had on each individual day. It will also inquire over what period of time these drinks were consumed. Another survey question asks how much the individual thinks other student-athletes consume.

After completing the questionnaire, the student receives a personalized assessment of their alcohol usage and tendencies. This data includes blood alcohol content estimations for each time they drank in the previous week and an analysis of how long the alcohol stayed in their system. All students receive information about how their choices can affect academic performance and athletes learn how their behavior has impacted their athletic performance. The PFI also helps correct misperceptions about drinking, highlight consequences of drinking, and provides an introduction to risk-reducing strategies.

Pilot program results have shown that after doing a PFI, students will likely reduce the total number of drinks they consume per week and that monthly and yearly usage commonly decline. By encouraging abstinence and promoting positive protective strategies, the PFI is a useful tool for teaching more responsible drinking behaviors.

Alcohol abuse on college campuses is a complicated issue and one that is not going away any time soon. That does not mean, however, that working to improve your school and athletic department's approach is not worth the effort. As athletic administrators, it is our job to help athletes grow, learn, and maximize their potential. Assisting them in making proper choices when it comes to alcohol use is another way we can contribute to our athletes' journey.

Sidebar: Coaches' Role
Coaches are instrumental in shaping the lives of student-athletes and research shows that this influence includes decisions student-athletes make about alcohol use. To start, it's important that coaches ask the right questions.

Closed-ended questions, which can be answered with "yes" or "no," should be avoided. If a coach asks a student-athlete, "Do you think you have a problem with drinking?" it's easy for them to answer with a simple "no," and the coach learns nothing. Such a question can also put the athlete on the defensive because it insinuates they already have a problem.

The question should instead be rephrased as, "How do you feel about your drinking?" This question is open-ended because it can't be answered with a yes or no, and the coach does not know where the response will lead.

Here are some other tips for coaches to consider:

- Talk to the student-athlete when he or she is free from distractions.
- Do not make assumptions.
- Do not judge or label behavior.
- Remain calm, empathetic, and understanding.

One last point is that coaches should not be expected to do it all. Coaches can start the conversation with student-athletes and express their concern but should also refer student-athletes to other resources as needed.
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