Addiction and sports seem to go hand in hand. Darren McCarty, John Daly, Brett Favre, Josh Hamilton, and Ryan Leaf are a few of the pros who dealt with the disease. Athletes are under nearly unparalleled levels of pressure to perform. The success of the team, salaries, and their future all directly depend on how they perform. At the professional level the numbers are staggering. According to Moutainside.com, a nationwide drug rehabilitation initiative, “Data shows that 52 percent of NFL players were exposed to opioids, with 71 percent admitting to misuse”.
Brett Favre was one of the more publicized instances of substance abuse among athletes in recent years. In an article with Sports Illustrated Favre told the magazine he took as many as fourteen Vicodin at a time during the 1995 season.
It is really amazing, as I think back, how well I played that year. That was an MVP year (1995) for me. But that year, when I woke up in the morning, my first thought was, ‘I gotta get more pills.’Brett Favre Courtesy of Sports Illustrated
Why are cases like these of addiction in sport the norm? Also, what can we do to change this discrepancy?
Why the Link
One of the major contributing factors to the apparent connection between addiction and sports is that injuries are so common. An article available on the “Daily Hampshire Gazette” cites a recent statistic, “90 percent of high school athletes will be injured at some point in their athletic careers”. Meaning athletes are far more likely than peers to receive opiate prescriptions. It’s well known that when people start using substances before 21 they’re far more likely to develop dependency. Unfortunately, it’s an all to common story. High school athletes getting hooked on drugs following injury. It’s exactly what happened to podcast guest Wade Muhlhauser on the personal level, while Deshawn Hayes talks about it happening to a teammate of his. Another reason for the link, the regularity at which substance use occurs in sports. From the Stanley Cup being filled with champagne to Rob Gronkowski’s hard partying antics raging like a rockstar is part of sports culture.
Laurie de Grace authored a study from the University of Alberta, finding a “strong relationship” between high-level participation in sports and addiction. “Sport, it appears, has the potential to increase the risk factors,” said de Grace. The study recognized clear patterns, most notably the acceptance of use and role models- while not actively encouraging it- doing little to deter consumption. Alex Clark, an assistant on the study, stated “The cultures are quite machismo and the pressures on the young people are quite high”. The hyper-competitive nature of sport was another common thread, one that de Grace claims presents itself in heavy substance use. “They wanted to be the best at whatever they did, so if that meant being the best heroin user, that’s what they did”.
The Cautionary Tale of Charles Rogers
Born and raised in Saginaw, MI Charles Rogers was an absolute stud wide receiver. He attended Michigan State University, playing football from 2000 to 2002. Charles still holds school records for most career receiving touchdowns (27) and yards in a game with 270. The Detroit Lions drafted Rogers second overall in 2003. Put another way, Rogers and Calvin Johnson tie as the highest drafted wide receivers in more than 30 years.
The fanfare of a hometown hero didn’t last long. Rogers broke his collarbone twice in his first two seasons, but it was an addiction to Vicodin, along with a number of failed drug tests, that ended his run in the NFL. The signs were there, at the NFL combine he tested positive for a urine-masking agent. It also later came out that Rogers had failed two drug tests while at MSU.
Things took a dark turn when he made it to the pros. In a Detroit Free Press article Rogers talks about the league’s culture around pain pills, saying that the Lions “were giving them (Vicodin) out like candy. Whatever you want, man. Whatever you want. (They) weren’t even questioning (the use) as long as you are on the field. They were passing them out like Skittles. I was straight hooked on them things for three or four years”.
Rogers’ 2005 season was over almost as soon as it begun. Consisting of a four game suspension after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Meaning Rogers failed at least three drug tests and when he got back to the team he was out of shape. His NFL career was over. About a month later the Lions filed a grievance requesting the return of $10 million dollars from his signing bonus for breach of contract.
Addiction in sports is a real problem facing American society. Stories like Charles Rogers and Brett Favre are all too common in the sporting world today. Sadly, stories like Wade’s are even more common. Many promising professional sports’ careers become derailed by the savagery of substance abuse. It’s hard to imagine the culture in sports changing anytime soon.
Quite frankly, I don’t believe the culture to be the primary culprit behind the issue. As mentioned above, people who wait to use substances until 21 are incrementally less likely to develop dependency. We’ve got to develop safer playing practices in high school and youth sports. When injuries do occur we need to keep kids out rather than doping them up to get back into games. Allow kids to sit out as long as needed to recuperate from injury and make them deal with the pain. That may sound less than compassionate, but I sincerely believe it would be the best alternative to not prescribe anyone under the age of 21 opiate medication.