Opioid Abuse in the NFL, a Short-Term plan with Devastating Results

Dealing with pain in the NFL has been a topic long discussed, with little action in terms of advancing medicine within the sport to treat the horrors that go along with playing professional football. Athletes kill themselves on the gridiron for a paycheck and glory, but at what cost?

Opioid addiction has become a major problem in the National Football League, but has not been addressed properly. It’s an issue that has long plagued former NFL’ers, but has been pushed to the side in order to address more prevalent topics, such as concussions or the asinine “DeflateGate.”

Let’s first look at former Miami Dolphins quarterback Ray Lucas. In a story with CBS News, Lucas said that he was “taking up to 800 prescription opioid pain medications per month at his worst.” Lucas described his addiction as so bad that he would “pop a handful of pills before bed hoping he wouldn’t wake up.”

Unfortunately, Lucas’ story isn’t an isolated case. In a study done by Outside the Lines, it was reported that 52% of retired players said that they took prescription pain medication during their playing time, and that 71% of those said that they misused the drugs back then. The scarier part is that 15% of those users admitted to misusing opioids within the past 30 days. While the painkillers were meant to treat the extreme agony that athletes were suffering from during their playing days, the allure of these pain pills has contributed to a permanent addiction in many former athletes.

While opioid addiction is a huge issue going on in all of the United States right now, Linda Cottler, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, reported that “[former players] are three times as likely as men their age in the general population to be misusing prescription opioids right now.” In another case featuring Dan Johnson, a former tight end for the Miami Dolphins, Johnson reported that he was taking nearly 1,000 painkillers a month to overcome the pain from his playing days.

So how do we stop this massive problem? Well, it’s simply not that easy. One of the leading candidates to replace opioids in the NFL is medical marijuana. Unfortunately for NFL players, marijuana is still listed as a banned substance. Meaning, if you test positive for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, you face possible suspension or the risk of being placed in the NFL’s drug abuse program for the rest of your career.

Despite, the NFL placing marijuana on its banned substance list, according to former star running back Jamal Anderson, the devil’s lettuce is still used abundantly in the league. In an interview with sportsgrid.com, Anderson said that he believes that 40 to 50% of the league used it when he played, and assumed that the number now hovers around 60% in the current day and age. But it’s not just Anderson preaching for players to be able to light up a doobie after practice to ease the pain of collisions. Former NFL tight end Nate Jackson said that he used to experiment with prescription painkillers to ease his pain, but that medical marijuana was the most effective for him. In an interview with The Guardian, Jackson stated, “I feel like I can speak about this because I’ve tried everything. I’ve shot up HGH, done the injections, tried the pills, tried marijuana. It’s not that I’m this big marijuana guy, it just helped my body the most.”

Many former and current NFL players have preached for a system similar to the NHL’s drug policy. The NHL does not list marijuana as one of its banned substances, and only tests for the drug to monitor use. Unless a player has failed multiple tests, in which case the league will step in and try and assist the player, the NHL takes a hands off approach and lets players treat their bodies in an alternative, natural fashion.

The NFL is still a long way from finding an alternative to opioid use to treat the pain that comes with the sport, but is open to trying new things. Commissioner Roger Goodell discussed that he would be open to seeing further research and testing done on the drug, saying in an interview with The Guardian that, “We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that.” Goodell did include a caveat to his statement, though, saying “our medical experts are not saying that right now.” Still, the NFL has increased its threshold for a positive marijuana test from 15 ng/ml of THC in blood/urine tests to 35 ng/ml. Unfortunately for NFL’ers, that number is still way below the 150 ng/ml limit as set by the World Anti-Doping Agency, who controls testing for the Olympic games.

Opioid addiction is just as important of an issue as concussions have become in the NFL. Without alternative medicines and treatment techniques, the league could not only have a CTE issue on their hands, but a suicide scandal, with high rates of suicide associated with opioid abuse. For now, we have to hope the NFL will see the light at the end of the tunnel with non-traditional pain treatment techniques. But maybe one day, when our children or children’s children have the opportunity to play in the NFL, the league will be rid of its blatant opioid problem, and be a safer place for all of its players.



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