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

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 ath

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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