The suggestion that famous athletes serve as role models for underage fans is "rubbish," say researchers writing in Drug and Alcohol Review. The authors found that the loutish and drunken behavior of some pro athletes – routinely reported in the media – has little or no effect on the drinking habits of young people.

The research team asked more than 1,000 young sportspeople at elite and amateur level and non-sportspeople to report the perceived drinking behavior of high-profile sport stars compared with their friends, and then report their own drinking behavior using the World Health Organizations Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test.

 Both sporting and non-sporting study participants believed that sports stars actually drank significantly less than themselves but that their own friends drank considerably more.

After accounting for other potential factors, sports stars' drinking was not predictive of young sports people's own drinking, and was actually predictive of lower levels of drinking in non-sportspeople – the more alcohol non-sportspeople perceived sports stars to drink, the less they actually drank themselves.

Young people's own drinking was instead strongly related to the overestimation of their friends' drinking and, in sports people only, to sport-specific cultural habits, such as the drinking with competitors after games.

"Our research shows that young people, both sporting participants and non-sporting participants, don't appear to be influenced by the drinking habits of high-profile sportspeople as depicted in the mass media" said Dr Kerry O'Brien, a lecturer in Manchester's School of Psychological Sciences.

The researchers, however, weren't quite capable of abandoning the paternalistic mindset and bogus correlations that pervade most alcohol addiction research. They say there is strong evidence for a relationship between alcohol-industry sponsorship, advertising and marketing within sport and hazardous drinking among young people.

"It is time that sport administrators consider their own social responsibilities when weighing up the costs and benefits of using their sports and sport stars to market alcohol on behalf of the alcohol industry," the authors write.

Citation: O'Brien et al., 'Alcohol consumption in sport: The influence of sporting idols, friends and normative drinking practices', Drug and Alcohol Review, April 2010; doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2010.00182.x