It’s no secret that a professional sports career comes with a pretty impressive perks package — worldwide recognition, an enviable seven-figure paycheck, flashy endorsement deals, adulation from fans of all ages, an instant platform to champion meaningful causes and so much more.
What may seem like such a charmed life, however, comes with enormous pressures that are often left unaddressed. To consistently play at peak physical level, which, of course, is the expectation when organizations are investing so much money in someone’s talent, players often deal with nagging injuries.
And rather than rehabilitating their torn-up knees and jacked-up backs properly, many resort to taking prescription pain medication for a quick turnaround, which can lead to long-term addiction involving opiates and other substances.
In a recent court filing, it was reported that the National Football League has violated several federal laws concerning prescription drugs.1 In addition to disregarding guidance from the Drug Enforcement Administration on properly storing, tracking, transporting and distributing of controlled substances, players were supplied with powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories in record numbers, according to sealed court documents in a lawsuit filed by former NFL players.
The High Price of Winning
While performance-enhancing drugs are banned in the NFL, the competitive nature of the game has led many medical staffs to administer painkillers relatively unchecked, sometimes without even disclosing the potential side effects. And the players have felt equally compelled to use them in order to contribute to their teams, according to the report.1
Considering the finite nature of the average NFL player’s career (the NFL Players Association says it’s roughly three years, while the NFL claims those who actually make the opening-day roster of a team clock in at an average of six years2), it’s not surprising that NFL players are four times more likely to become dependent on opiates than the general population.3
Hoping to turn the tide in a more positive direction for current and former NFL players, a few retired players — and even a current Detroit Lions running back — are speaking candidly about pain management and their own drug use, including medical marijuana, which is currently banned in the NFL. Since the shelf life of an NFL player is so short (with a few notable exceptions), those speaking out feel it’s something the league needs to address more openly so that players can have a fruitful life after football.
Embracing Total Wellness, No Stigmas Allowed
It’s become a well-worn stereotype for men not to talk about their feelings, their struggles and what they’re going through personally and emotionally. But that’s changing, slowly but surely, in professional athletics.
In the NBA, mental health has become a recent emphasis thanks to two outspoken players, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, who publicly revealed their own challenges.4 The National Basketball Players Association recently also hired its first director of mental health and wellness. In a continued effort to de-stigmatize mental health challenges so players won’t have to suffer in silence, comprehensive, confidential mental health policy has been prioritized by the league’s commissioner and union head.
By sharing his history of depression, anxiety and panic attacks, Love was met with some skepticism from fellow players and coaches who didn’t quite understand his anger issues on the court or failure to keep composure in crucial playoff games. Despite that response from a few of his peers, Love says discussing mental health is “the last thing” that should be taboo.
John Lucas, a retired NBA player and assistant coach for the Houston Rockets who also runs a wellness aftercare program for athletes, agrees and estimates that more than 40 percent of NBA players struggle with mental health issues, with less than five percent of them actually seeking help. Citing how those issues can directly lead to alcohol and drug abuse, Lucas calls it an “epidemic in our league.”4
Dozens of other coaches and industry professionals agree about the far-reaching effect of mental health issues in sports and hope that players will seek help with the urgency they would if they were suffering from a physical ailment.
After Love shared his story, Charles Barkley, a Hall of Famer known for his bravado on and off the court, called him “courageous.” As Barkley put it, “If you don’t think that takes courage, then you don’t know the NBA mentality.”4
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, don’t hesitate to get help today by calling us at The Canyon and talking with one of our admissions coordinators about your options. With a compassionate, fine-tuned approach, we treat the whole person with specialized, cutting-edge care. Call 424-387-3118 now.
By Christa Banister, Contributing Writer
1 Maese, Rick. “NFL Abuse of Painkillers and Other Drugs Described in Court Filings.” The Washington Post, March 9, 2017.
2 Gabriel, Larry. “Professional Athletes Cop to Pot.” Detroit Metro Times, April 4, 2018.
3 Maese, Rick. “NFL players fight pain with medical marijuana: ‘Managing it with pills was slowly killing me’” The Washington Post, May 2, 2017.
4 MacMullen, Jackie. “The Courageous Fight to Fix the NBA’s Mental Health Problem.” ESPN, August 20, 2018.