Opioid Abuse in College and Professional Sports
When an athlete gets injured before an important competition, their first reaction is often to do anything and everything in order to be able to compete. While it is easy to feel for the athlete in this situation, it is the athlete’s responsibility to make decisions for themselves, which will benefit their long-term health the most. Unfortunately, it has been a common occurrence in high school, college, and professional sports where a star athlete is given a highly addictive and potent painkillers in order to simply compete in one event. While this works for one day, the long-term effects are seriously damaging and can take a toll on a person’s health years after their playing career ends. Throughout this article, I am going to discuss some legendary athletes who got prescribed the wrong painkillers,as well as some personal insight as to proper ways to deal with injuries and how overcoming them the right way can prolong one’s athletic career.
In 1996, a young man by the name of Ray Lucas entered Rutgers University as a highly recruited prospect and went on to be a successful collegiate and professional quarterback. While Lucas saw success in the National Football League (NFL), and became a hometown hero playing for his local New York Jets NFL team, he witnessed and experienced opioid abuse. When describing his opioid use, he explained that the NFL would rather prescribe athletes addictive pills than pay 6-figures for surgery. He goes on to say that for his neck injury, surgery would’ve cost them upwards of $400,000; instead, the NFL chose to prescribe him an addictive opioid. He said that the opioid he was taking went from 125 pills a month to 1400 pills a month, quickly creating an addiction (Gavidia, 2019). The NFL has billions of dollars,yet it is sad to see it be stingy when it comes to the health of their athletes. However, they have been doing this for years. It doesn’t look like they plan on changing anytime soon; therefore, it is important for young athletes today to have a reliable doctor outside of their team/university whom they can go to run by questions regarding medications and pain killers, to make sure that they know fully what they are putting in their body, and are aware of the short-term and long-term effects that come with it.to make sure that they know fully what they are putting in their body, and are aware of the short-term and long-term effects that come with it.to make sure that they know fully what they are putting in their body, and are aware of the short-term and long-term effects that come with it.
During my time at UNM as a track athlete, I have learned the correct ways to bounce back from injuries and have successful seasons. During my sophomore year, I had a stress fracture in my foot and had to miss both the conference and regional championships for cross country. However, thanks to the amazing medical and training staff at UNM, I was able to learn specific rehabilitation exercises to strengthen my foot so I wouldn’t get injured again. Although giving me painkillers and drugs may have allowed me to compete in a couple of meets, it possibly could have damaged the insides of my body, and likely have led to an addiction. Instead, I sacrificed one season in order to strengthen my body. Since then, I have had multiple successful and healthy seasons as a lobo athlete.
Another notable athlete who suffered from opioid painkiller addiction was Brett Favre. Favre was at the prime of his career when he voluntarily entered the NFL’s substance abuse program. He used the painkiller Vicodin, which would keep him up all night, and cause him to fall asleep during important team meetings. He got to the point where he was taking 15 Vicodin pills at once, which meant he was taking a month’s worth in just two days! After hitting rock bottom and realizing he had an addiction, Favre decided to go cold turkey and got rid of all of his drugs. He admitted that the first month was the worst month of recovery he’s ever had. He recalls having cold sweats and shaking every single night. However, this adversity led to Favre’s greatest success yet. The same year Favre quit Vicodin, he went on to win his first Super Bowl title. Not only this, but both his siblings had been arrested that year, and one of his best friends had been killed by his brother in a car accident (Brinson, 2016). While these all may have been reasons and excuses for Favre to turn back to painkillers, he chose to stay strong and fight through these tough times by working harder than ever on the football field, and ultimately leading his team to winning a Championship.
For many athletes, painkiller addiction often begins long before they have the chance to play professionally. Former West Point Academy football player Jared Rogers developed an addiction in college, ultimately ruining his once promising football career. Jared started off simply by asking his teammates who had been injured for a pill or two, but when that wasn’t enough, he sought out an outside dealer and began buying 30 mg Percocet pills. This addiction followed him all the way to his senior year, and despite this, he had become a model student-athlete and cadet company commander. However, he faced a random drug test just months before his graduation and tested positive for both Adderall and Percocet. Because West Point is paid for by the government, a student who does not make it to graduation is forced to pay the remaining debt. In Jared’s case, this debt was over $256,000 and was discharged from the Academy before he could graduate. His family argued that West Point made him a drug addict, but other decisions such as allowing his friend to deal drugs out of his car led to him being expelled as well. Looking back on it, Jared understands that the reason he’d allow his friend to do this, was simply because he’d get free drugs out of it, which he relied on so much to get through his daily life. While it was tough for Rogers to come clean and get help before it became too late, the environment West Point gave someone like him was not fair. Students were not encouraged to seek help when struggling with addiction, and mental health struggles are traditionally frowned upon in the military community (Schapiro, 2020). The military does offer great benefits to students from all different backgrounds, however, for those who have an addiction that is out of their control, they do not receive fair treatment and proper counseling. By sharing his story, Rogers is bringing awareness to addiction and mental health in a community which traditionally has turned a blind eye to it.
As a student-athlete, the best thing you can do is to surround yourself with individuals who first and foremost care about your long-term health and well-being. Not to say that many coaches don’t have the athlete’s best interest, but it’s important to have family members, friends, or physicians whom you can turn to when in doubt. In many cases, coaches and team doctors will just want to do what’s best for the team and put athletes’ health at risk in order to win a competition. While I’m all for playing through soreness and tired legs, it becomes more serious when we are taking harmful drugs in order to cover up serious injuries and ignore muscle and bone damage. By doing research on prescription medications and asking doctors to provide information on them, you can make sure that your athletic career and post-playing career isn’t ruined by painkillers and opioids.
Written by Brandon Parrado, UNM Student
April 13, 2020
Schapiro, R. (2020). A West Point football player got hooked on pain pills. Now he owes the government $300K.
Gavidia, M. (2019). 5 Things About Opioid Abuse Among Athletes. https://www.ajmc.com/newsroom/5-things-about-opioid-abuse-among-athletes