SPORT CAN offer a lifeline to young people at risk of abusing drugs - but don't overestimate its effectiveness, sport and drug educators are warning.
The role models offered by football and other sports can be beyond most young people's reach, sports sociologist Tim Crabbe of Goldsmiths College told a national conference on drugs and sport.
Many sports have a negative side, including steroid abuse in athletics, alcoholism and recreational drug abuse among top players, and racism and hooliganism among soccer fans.
His message was underlined by Sue Campbell of the Youth Sport Trust. Sport could be a catalyst for education or personal and social development - but only in the right hands. "You will not learn by osmosis," she said.
The conference was held to discuss the role of sport in preventing drug abuse and to mark the end of a year-long project in Tower Hamlets, east London, which brought the two together.
The pound;44,000 scheme, funded by the Government's drug challenge fund, involved drugs workers and specialist basketball and soccer coaches visiting primary schools together to run PE sessions followed by health lessons.
Other elements included setting up sports programmes in two housing estates to divert young people from boredom-inspired crime, and a soccer team for ex-drug addicts to help their rehabilitation.
Dr Crabbe, of the centre for urban and community research, who evaluated the scheme, said: "Sport is a means of connecting with people. There's no question it has been successful. There has been a great deal of excitement about the drug education programme in the classroom and children responded very well."
But funding is a problem - Tower Hamlets is keen for the scheme to continue, but needs in the long term to find around pound;15,000 a year.
There was mixed news for delegates from deputy drugs czar Mike Trace. He said funding in future would be better structured to cut out "funny money" - seed funding that set up projects but then left them stranded. Ministers want to shift funding from enforcement to prevention.
But Mr Trace warned that schemes would have to prove rigorously that they made a difference and delivered what they claimed.