By Beth Rosenberg
The NCAA News
Final results from a pilot program designed to encourage student-athletes to make responsible decisions about alcohol and tobacco use show that employing a “social norms” theory to encourage behavior can produce successful outcomes.
Student-Athletes Taking Active Responsible Roles, or STARR, has been in place at a group of Division III college campuses from the fall of 2001 through this spring. Final survey results demonstrate that the program has led to a decline in the use of alcohol and tobacco, as well as a decline in the misperceptions that most collegiate student-athletes abuse alcohol and tobacco.
“I think it was definitely a great program and it’s shown better results than some of the other (alcohol-education programs),” said Denise Bierly, head women’s basketball coach at Eastern Connecticut State University, one of the schools that participated in the pilot STARR program. “It definitely gets the campus talking and the students talking, which I think is a huge benefit.”
STARR, which was funded through the NCAA Division III Initiatives Task Force, is based on the social-norms approach, which uses simple facts, specific to the campus, about alcohol use and other issues to reduce misperceptions and help students make healthy choices. For example, rather than messages that stress the dangers of alcohol abuse, the STARR message may state that most student-athletes on a particular campus drink only once a week or less. Student-athlete-specific statistics are gathered through surveys, which gives the messages credibility.
The thought is that by correcting student-athletes’ misperceptions of their peers’ behavior, they will be more likely to make responsible decisions themselves.
Eight Division III schools took part in the initial program. In addition to Eastern Connecticut State, the other schools were: Baldwin-Wallace College, Carroll College, Goucher College, Linfield College, Rockford College, State University of New York at Cortland and Wesleyan University (Connecticut).
Of those eight schools, five continued the program for an additional year. Those were: Eastern Connecticut State, Baldwin-Wallace, Carroll, Goucher and Cortland State.
The study was conducted by H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and David Craig, a biochemistry professor at the school.
“All too often we hear about violations, or alcohol irresponsibility, academic dishonesty and things of that nature, and I feel that STARR has definitely afforded us the opportunity to bring forth a positive message,” said Michelle Nicropolis Gallagher, CHAMPS/
Life Skills director at Baldwin-Wallace. “I’ve definitely engaged in more conversations with individuals and groups on campus, especially student-athletes who are thankful that the reputation they work hard to improve is finally being noticed.”
To conduct the study, an initial survey was taken at all eight schools in the fall 2001, and a follow-up survey was conducted in the fall 2002. The five schools that continued the program took a third survey in the fall 2003.
After the first survey was conducted, those results were used to disseminate information that countered myths about student-athlete alcohol use and other behaviors. The information was circulated through computer screen-savers, posters, ads in the student newspaper and give-aways at sporting events.
For example, a screen saver, poster or ad might say, “Seventy-five percent of Baldwin-Wallace student-athletes drink once a week or less.”
Results showed that after exposure to such messages, not only did perceptions change, but actions changed as well. For example, aggregate data from the five schools showed there was a 16 percent reduction in the proportion of student-athletes consuming alcohol more than once a week and a 29 percent reduction in the number of student-athletes who got drunk more than once a week.
Significant reductions in student-athlete tobacco use also were achieved, including a 33 percent reduction in the proportion of student-athletes using tobacco weekly or more and a 38 percent reduction in the proportion of student-athletes using tobacco daily.
There also were reductions in misperceptions, such as a 15 percent reduction in the proportion of student-athletes misperceiving a permissive alcohol attitude as the norm and a 20 percent reduction in the proportion of student-athletes perceiving that more than once-per-week alcohol consumption among teammates was the norm.
The study also found that the mean hours reported for studying each week went up, while the mean hours of partying went down.
Perkins’ study found that the more exposure student-athletes had to the messages, the less likely they were to engage in risky behavior.
“We significantly reduced the perceptions of high-risk drinking, and we significantly reduced problem drinking rates. We also prompted significant reductions in tobacco use and other things,” said Perkins. “That’s an important message because nationwide, other kinds of projects have not had much or any success in reducing the problems at all.
“So even if you get a few percentage points reduction, and we got more than that on many of the measures, that’s really big news,” he said. “This project was the first one to successfully deliver messages about the positive norms of the majority of student-athletes.”
Perkins will be presenting these findings next month at the National Conference on the Social-Norms Model in Chicago.
“We will be saying that this was a first experiment to try to conduct a social-norms campaign targeting student-athletes in an intensive way,” he said.
Perkins also said that a number of other schools have expressed interest in doing this type of project on their campus. He hopes the schools that participated in the pilot program also will continue their outreach.
Gallagher said she hopes to continue the program on her campus.
“It’s just a great program, even by naming a student-athlete of the month, or putting an ad in the school newspaper or making fliers or posters, I think more campuses can encourage continuing responsibility of the great majority of the student-athletes,” she said. “And hopefully that would run over into the entire student body.”
Bierly, too, hopes to continue the STARR program.
“I think because they’ve seen good results, hopefully they’ll continue funding for this program and in the fall we can start anew and get recharged again,” she said. “It’s the type of program that if you do it every year, hopefully the momentum will build from year to year.”