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Teaming up to investigate the knock-on effects of alcohol and sport

Catherine Palmer is keen to level the playing field in one particular area of research.

Professor Palmer is the chief investigator, working with principal investigator Professor Steve Jackson from the University of Otago, on an Australian Research Council-funded project exploring the relationship between women, sport and alcohol.

Together, they bring expertise around issues of alcohol, gender and identity to research that will cover new ground in Australia. It is a timely one, given the blossoming of interest in women's sport at the top level, and the increased professionalism and marketing associated with that.

Professor Palmer is a social anthropologist by training with a long-standing interest in the social dimensions of sport. Her PhD focused on the Tour de France ("come July the phone starts to ring about doping"); she has also researched understandings of risk in lifestyle sports and extreme sports, and social inclusion in sport as it relates to Muslim and other refugees.

"What's different about this project is that it is not about the relationship between men, sport and alcohol. Traditionally, that's been the focus of academic research, and the public's perception is that it is a masculine issue.

"Academically, we tend to write about or theorise about that through a particular framework, what's commonly understood as hegemonic masculinity.

The gap in research

"That is important research and should continue, but we are not necessarily interested in drunk footballers behaving badly," Professor Palmer said. "Our focus is on women's experiences of sport and alcohol; that's the gap in the research to date. There's been absolutely no research done … on their experiences of alcohol either as players or fans; or the part played by alcohol sponsorship."

The researchers will spend three years interviewing players and fans, from a wide range of sports, from individual sports to team sports; informal sports, competitive sports; extreme sports …

"Anything from mountain biking to netball and the various football codes, and the full spectrum of participants, from elite athletes to those who just play for pleasure and leisure."

Professor Palmer intends to keep the methodological frame wide open.

"It is really about getting the baseline data from which we can determine what the particular issues are, which can then be the basis of further research, such as into the prevalence of drinking in sporting cultures, and the strategies and interventions that clubs have in place to manage potentially problematic relationships with alcohol, as we see in the AFL and the NRL.

Ever-growing audience

"We will also be talking to the alcohol industry about the opportunities, and the challenges, that it sees in this very fertile and ever-growing audience for women's sport."

It is imperative for the researchers to keep an open mind, Professor Palmer said.

"We won't be going into this with any assumptions, or preconceptions, about what we might find. We're not going to be judgmental about this – if we just rely on anecdote to inform our decisions then we are bad sociologists. We need evidence to feed into government policy-making, into practice such as the responsible service of alcohol, into formulating interventions – we can't rely on men's experiences as a proxy for what we might find in women's sport.

"We will be talking to adults, of course, those over 18, but there are girls coming through, and we need to ensure that for them the sports environment remains a safe, supportive and inclusive one. Our interest is around the knock-on effects of alcohol use and abuse."