Concussions in the NFL

(Courtesy of Wade Austin Ellis/Unsplash)

Hundreds of professional football players and retired players struggle with opioid addiction. Putting up with pain is just a part of the sport, and in such a competitive environment, athletes get hooked in order to stay on the field.

Football players are no strangers to injuries and, as a result, many turn to opioids. In the past, athletes might have depended heavily on over-the-counter medication, but nowadays, with better access to strong medications, they are turning to drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin, which flow at an alarming rate in NFL locker rooms. Some football players have also turned to painkillers to numb psychological pain when experiencing anxiety or depression.

Former quarterback Ryan Leaf, now an advocate for a sober-living company, began using Vicodin after a shoulder injury and quickly developed a dependence on painkillers. Leaf was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy after his junior year at Washington State University, but after being selected as the second overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, the NFL Top 10 ranked him as the No. 1 “draft bust” in NFL history. His abuse of painkillers contributed to his failure and continued even after his premature retirement from the NFL and eventually became his way of coping with the emotional hurt of a short career. 

Leaf’s career was greatly impacted by his drug abuse, and he is not the only athlete who has struggled with substance abuse. Painkillers in NFL locker rooms are not hard to come by. In 2011, a survey commissioned by ESPN examined opioid use in the NFL. According to this survey, 52 percent of former players used prescription opioids during their NFL careers and among these players, 71 percent reported misusing opioids while playing in the league. In 2015 more than 1,600 former players filed a lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that opioids were recklessly supplied to players by athletic trainers and doctors to keep them on the field.

In an interview with ESPN about the challenges of dealing with injuries while playing in the NFL, Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions said that physicians were passing out painkillers “like candy” in locker rooms. “They’re trying to do whatever they can to get you back on the field and make your team look good.” Painkillers are heavily dispensed in NFL locker rooms, and it has led to generations of retired athletes coping with addiction.

Athletes are pressured to take pain killers so they can continue to play, and the staff are pressured to provide them in order to keep up with the competition. NFL teams need to prioritize the health of their players in the long run. Athletes destroy their bodies for relatively short careers in professional sports and suffer the consequences for the remainder of their lives. In order to destigmatize addiction, there needs to be a discussion about opioid abuse and player safety in the NFL. Athletes deserve to be treated like their futures and lives off the field are just as important as their physical performance. While the plaintiffs in the 2015 lawsuit against the NFL are seeking compensation, something needs to be done about current athletes and the NFL as an institution. There needs to be a more thorough regulation of painkillers and better transparency about what medication is being issued and why.