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.
Note: Bickford can be reached at (919) 962-5173 or

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Related Eating Disorders Articles from Brightsurf:

Virtual Reality health appointments can help patients address eating disorders
Research from the University of Kent, the Research centre on Interactive Media, Smart systems and Emerging technologies -- RISE Ltd and the University of Cyprus has revealed that Virtual Reality (VR) technology can have significant impact on the validity of remote health appointments for those with eating disorders, through a process called Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET).

Study links eating disorders with body dysmorphia
People with eating disorders are 12 times more likely to be preoccupied with perceived flaws in their physical appearance than those without, according to new research published in the journal Eating and Weight Disorders.

College students access eating disorders therapy via phone app
Studying college women with eating disorders, a team led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St.

Research reveals toll of pandemic on those with eating disorders
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound, negative impact on nine out of ten people with experience of eating disorders, a new study from Northumbria University, Newcastle, reveals.

Does posting edited self photos on social media increase risk of eating disorders?
New research published in International Journal Eating Disorders revealed a consistent and direct link between posting edited photos on Instagram and risk factors for eating disorders.

Face up to eating disorders, and seek help
A new study has found young people are leaving it 'too late' to seek help for eating disorders, citing fear of losing control over their eating or weight, denial, and failure to perceive the severity of the illness as reasons not to get professional advice.

Excessive sports in case of eating disorders: Psychological mechanisms decoded
Excessive and obsessive exercise is very harmful to health, particularly for persons suffering from eating disorders.

Helping patients with binge eating disorders: There's an app for that
Study suggests that adaptation of smartphone technology is a scalable option that significantly improves clinical outcomes.

Eating disorders linked to exercise addiction
New research shows that exercise addiction is nearly four times more common amongst people with an eating disorder.

Focus on teenage anxiety may aid early identification of those at risk of eating disorders
Teenage girls who experience clinical levels of anxiety could be at greater risk of eating disorders, according to associations identified in a study completed by researchers at the University of Bristol with UCL.

Read More: Eating Disorders News and Eating Disorders Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to