The NFL’s Opioid Problem


Last summer I wrote about the nations ongoing heroin and opioid epidemic and how it is affecting Rhode Island and the rest of New England. Opioid addiction in most cases begins from a prescription opiate such as Oxycontin or Percocet. Because of this, people who are recovering from injuries are susceptible. Usually that would make us think of reckless teenagers, war veterans or people at physically demanding jobs. Although there has been increased awareness of opioid addiction in all levels of society, one at-risk group that continues to receive little attention is NFL athletes. While government and health care officials explore a variety of radical responses to the problem, the NFL continues to turn a blind eye to the very real dangers facing their top athletes.

A couple weeks ago, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe wrote an article on this subject on The Players Tribune. Titled Getting Off the T Train, referring to the drug Toradol, Monroe discusses the link between painkillers and the NFL.

“Football is pain. There’s no way around it, and by no means am I complaining; it’s the sport I love. But make no mistake about it: For 60 minutes every Sunday, millions of fans are watching men in helmets and pads literally put their bodies on the line for the game. As long as football is played, athletes will seek a way to deal with the pain.”

47ee13c50ee1dfbfde6e0ed76d8b6616_crop_northHe goes on to say that every injury he has had during his playing career has been treated by opioids. Monroe is lucky to have never developed a dependence, but not everyone is so lucky. He tells the story of a college teammate and friend whose pill habit drove him from his home, and who is now living on the streets with a    full-blown heroin addiction.

A 2010 study of retired players by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, revealed that former NFL players are four times more likely to abuse opioid pain medications than the general population. In their research they interviewed 644 players, including former Miami Dolphins tight end Dan Johnson. Due to injuries from his playing days Johnson said that he developed an addiction and that he “was taking about a thousand Vicodins a month. You know, people go ‘That’s impossible. You’re crazy.’ No, that was exactly what I was taking.” He even said that his addiction drove him to consider suicide.

Opioid abuse is not specific to NFL athletes either. The NHL felt the effects of this problem in 2011 when New York Rangers wing Derek Boogaard died from an overdose. It effects all ages too, from retirees to teens, as Sports Illustrated reported last year. I’ll let former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Jay Williams tell you his story himself:

This brings us back to Eugene Monroe. This year he became the first active player to openly advocate for the use of medical marijuana to treat pain rather than opioids. He is calling for the NFL and the Players Association to:

  1. Remove marijuana from the banned substances list.
  2. Fund medical marijuana research especially relating to CTE (concussions)
  3. Stop overprescribing addictive and harmful opioids.

As Monroe discusses in his article, the NFL has been notoriously strict on weed while throwing around potentially lethal painkillers like they are nothing. We have seen star players like Ricky Williams, Josh Gordon, Daryl Washington and countless others lose significant chunks of their careers due to testing positive for marijuana. Regardless of how you feel about their decision making, the penalties are excessive. According to recent punishments testing positive for marijuana leads to a suspension that is twice as long as that for domestic violence.

Monroe recently donated $80,000 to Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania for research on the effects of cannabinoid therapy on NFL players. He also donated $10,000 to marijuana research. His advocacy is beginning to be heard. He made a recent appearance on NPR and was asked about the response of friends and teammates. He said that he’s been given tons of support. “We want a healthier option. We don’t want to be like some of our former colleagues,” he said, referring to those who have battled addiction.

roger-goodell-nj-lawmakers-firedThe real question is whether the NFL will take him seriously. Commissioner Roger Goodell said that despite all of the advancements in marijuana research, there are “not significant enough changes that our medical personnel have changed their view.” Still, just days ago some of the NFL’s doctors said that they wanted to talk to representatives from Monroe’s research team about the subject.

The NFL is always telling us that player safety is their top priority.

Prove it.


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