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Top GAA stars at risk from binge drinking, study finds

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Top GAA stars are in danger of consuming harmful levels of alcohol, as a new medical study shows inter-county players are more prone to binge drinking than their peers, while a third feel there is a harmful alcohol culture within the GAA.

Researchers found three-quarters of GAA players, who were regular drinkers, showed signs of “adverse alcohol use” while two-thirds had experienced alcohol-related harm within the previous 12 months.

In addition, 15% of players who drink confessed to having at least six alcohol-related harms in the previous year.

The most common incidents related to regretting something said when drinking, missing work or college, physical fights and relationship issues.

More shockingly, the study revealed 2% of inter-county players had required attendance at the emergency department of a hospital because of their drinking – a total of 13 players.

“The culture in elite GAA appears drinking to excess as opposed to in moderation,” the study concluded.

Extend ban on sponsorship

It recommended the GAA extend its existing ban on sponsorship from betting companies to the alcohol industry “in the public interest”.

A team of researchers from a number of different hospitals and universities, including former Dublin footballer and doctor Jack McCaffrey, analysed the drinking patterns of 717 members of the Gaelic Players Association and the Women’s Gaelic Players Association through a questionnaire on the frequency and quantity of their alcohol consumption.

The survey found 96% of footballers and hurlers admitted to being current drinkers, of which 93% engaged in binge drinking – consuming six or more standard drinks in one sitting.

It claimed players who were male, smoke, binge-drink, generally drink in public, gamble and do not live with a partner were at a particular risk of suffering alcohol-related harm.

Most respondents were male, unmarried, non-smokers, in full-time employment, had completed university and were still living with their parents.

The average age at which they first consumed alcohol was 16 years.

The results showed alcohol consumption is higher in the off-season with elite players consuming an average of 20 standard drinks over a month compared to eight per month during the competitive season.

About half of players said their team had an informal player-led policy on alcohol, with 15% playing for a team that had a formal policy from management.

On a positive note, the study found low levels of forced binge drinking for new players (otherwise known as “hazing”) with only 6% being aware of such incidents.

Although 35% of elite players felt there was a harmful alcohol culture within the GAA, 60% still approved of the sponsorship of GAA competitions by the alcohol industry.

Almost half of all players had received alcohol promotion material in the previous 12 months.

In contrast, only 28% supported sponsorship from betting firms – which have been banned from sponsoring GAA competitions since 2018.

Most players who experience problems with alcohol indicated they were most likely to turn to family, friends or partners, with only 15% seeking support from the GPA or WGPA and only 5% from their teammates or managers.

In relation to the potential harm caused by their alcohol consumption, 32% of players said they had said something they regretted because of drink, while 25% admitted missing work or college.

Another 10% said their drinking had affected personal relationships, while 5% had got involved in a physical fight.

The study, which is published in the Irish Journal of Medical Science, found a strong association between adverse alcohol use and monthly binge drinking, smoking, drinking in public and gambling.

‘Concerning alcohol behaviours’

The authors of the report said the findings of the survey demonstrated “concerning alcohol behaviours” among both elite male and female GAA stars, with high levels of binge drinking and alcohol-related harms.

They contrasted the 96% level of alcohol consumption among GAA stars with the 76% rate among the general population.

The authors said they were particularly concerned that 35% claimed they drank more when they were with their teammates.

The study noted many players feel unable to drink alcohol for long periods for numerous reasons, including drinking bans, but then drink heavily when the opportunity arises.

It also observed some players felt underage GAA members grow up associating sport with alcohol.

At the same time, the study said there were some encouraging findings, including the fact that overall annual consumption of alcohol by elite players was below the national average.

Force binge drinking

It found force binge drinking as a form of initiation for new teammates was less prevalent than in North American collegiate sports.

The study noted the impact of alcohol on death rates was most pronounced among the 25-49 age group.

Alcohol is estimated to cause 2,700 deaths annually in Ireland and accounts for 10% of all expenditure on healthcare services.

The report observed alcohol consumption levels had also increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The authors said reversing the harmful drinking culture within the GAA would require a multi-faceted approach involving players, representative bodies, backroom staff, Government, the GAA and wider society.

While reducing alcohol affordability through taxation or price controls is the most effective and economical way to reduce alcohol-related harm, the authors said players would need to be the key drivers of change in elite GAA circles.

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