Professor says college athletic departments must pay more attention to eating disorders

February 15, 2000

CHAPEL HILL -- U.S. colleges and universities leave themselves open to lawsuits by not paying enough attention to athletes with eating disorders, especially young women, according to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill legal expert.

Worse, most allow athletes to put their health, reproductive ability and, in some cases, lives at risk, says Barbara Bickford, assistant professor of exercise and sport science at UNC-CH. By addressing the growing problem, coaches, trainers and administrators can protect not only their schools, but also their athletes' well being.

A report the attorney wrote about the legal duty of college athletic departments to athletes with eating disorders appears in the current issue of the Marquette Sports Law Journal.

"When I was associate director of athletics at Brandeis University, I noticed many young women in New England Division III schools who appeared to have eating disorders," Bickford said. "I became increasingly frustrated with the increasing number of athletes who were visibly eating-disordered, meaning that they were anorexic."

The trend was most noticeable among track and field athletes, but she also saw female soccer players and female basketball players who were 20 percent or more below normal weight for their height.

"We're really talking about emaciated women competing in college athletics nationwide," Bickford said. "Eating disorders are a serious health risk particularly in sport because participants' bodies are being stressed not only by the eating disorder, but also by the rigors of training and competition."

What frustrated her was that coaches and administrators ignored the problem, possibly because they considered it a women's issue or did not think they should become involved in their athletes' personal lives. She heard many other excuses as well.

"I thought that if you could pose legal liability by making the argument that schools owe a duty to athletes who experience eating disorders, then maybe these people would take the problem seriously and give it the attention it deserves," Bickford said.

Various studies have estimated that up to 10 percent of female athletes overall and up to 30 percent of women in certain sports engage in such potentially dangerous behaviors as not eating enough and inducing vomiting after meals, she said. Some women runners, for example, have a life-threatening inability to see how skinny they really are. On the other hand, some male wrestlers, who throw up to avoid exceeding weight limits, are psychologically healthy but can develop electrolyte imbalances that lead to fainting and heart failure.

In her article, Bickford discusses colleges' and universities' potential for legal liability if they continue to allow athletes with eating disorders to participate in sports. She also outlines a risk-management program -- what athletic departments can do to meet their legal duties to athletes and limit their liability in case of serious injury or death.

"Risk management includes an education program for athletics department personnel so that they can recognize symptoms and so they don't contribute to the problem themselves by making unrealistic weight loss demands," Bickford said. "It also involves pre-participation screening, including screening for eating disorders, intervention and treatment plans and nutrition education for athletes."

Every sport has athletes with eating disorders, but they are especially prevalent in gymnastics, cross-country, diving, synchronized swimming and figure skating, she said.

"Like a lot of other hot topics, eating disorders go in and out of vogue," Bickford said. "But this is a problem that's not going away. In the past few years, it has been getting less and less attention from the people who should be paying more attention to it."

The UNC-CH professor specializes in legal issues in college sports, especially women's right to participate and receive equal pay for sports-related work.
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Note: Bickford can be reached at (919) 962-5173 or barbbick@email.unc.edu.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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