On Friday night, I spent a very long session chatting with six players from a Southern California high school. The topics we discussed were wide ranging. Sometimes they bordered on regular chit-chat, as was the case when we discussed my former powerlifting career and subsequent ‘retirement/weight loss’, but there were also some very important topics broached.
First, what impressed me most about all of these young men is the humility with which they approach their own athletic success. These were six players, all from an elite high school in Southern California, and to a man, they were all extremely polite, engaging and respectful. That is a testament to each of their parents/guardians and their coaching staff as well. They have done a tremendous job keeping these young men grounded in reality.
In a passing conversation with DJ Uiagalelei asking questions about Jeremiah Masoli, one of the most important topics of the night came up; marijuana, football and other drugs.
A long time ago, I played college football; not at the Oregon level, but a small school. The sport, one I loved as a child and have always loved, is also very physical. This is more than just a few bumps and bruises. Controlled collisions between players moving at varying rates of speed cause just as much damage as do car accidents. At that time, there were large bottles filled with Vicodin in our training room. We tended to take pain killers before practice (just a couple), then several more after. No prescription, just grab a couple. Sure, the head athletic trainer made sure you weren’t emptying the bottle, but there we were taking several pain killers every day.
And this was not limited to in-season, or full pad practices. I developed a pretty severe case of tendonitis in my brachioradialis (forearm) during one off-season. It caused significant pain during off-season training. The solution? Ice and pain killers before lifting, ice after every set and then heat and more pain killers at the end of the workout.
See where this is going? There were a lot of pain killers being popped without any real prescription. There is a rising problem in the NFL that is also beginning to infiltrate the NCAA: opioid addiction.
According to drugabuse.gov an agency tasked with tracking drug abuse in the United States, in 2012there were estimated to be 2.1 million people in the U.S. addicted to opioid painkillers and approximately 457,000 addicted to heroin. Since 1999, deaths from opioid overdose quadrupled from 1.4 per 100,000 to 5.4 in 2011
Recently, Yahoo! Sports wrote a story about a young high school wrestler who had suffered a bad shoulder injury during his senior season. He was prescribed opioid painkillers; within three years, Drew Gintis was dead of an overdose.
As Eric Adelson detailed, “Drew Gintis, at age 18, had become addicted to painkillers. And like so many who have fallen victim to America’s opioid crisis, he started to take drastic measures to feel the way he felt on the meds. He raided cabinets, stole pills, and then it got even worse – heroin use.”
This is the real scary part of the pain killer story. Heroin is far too easy to come by and takes that pain medication high to a different level. An unattainable level that destroys the body from the inside out.
When Colt Lyerla was arrested for heroin possession, so many people said publicly ‘good riddance.’ Some lamented the wasted talent, others the tragedy of his background, but few want to look at it deeper and understand that drug addiction starts in many places; almost always related to pain, either emotional or physical. This is the perilous nature of shooting for professional sports stardom. While the NFL (and NCAA) battle the growing concussion worries, some overburdened athletes turn to many other methods to cope with the pain.
Some recognize the medicinal value of marijuana. The problem? It is against the law in many states and an explicit violation of the NFL drug policy as well as NCAA standards. Schools can prescribe painkillers, but the young men can have their scholarships removed for the use of marijuana.
I told the six young men that, from my own perspective, there were better ways than marijuana 9and even painkillers). I saw team mates begin to feel the high of painkillers and the lows. I stopped. I turned instead to meditation. After practice, I would take off my shoulder pads and cleats, find a secluded spot in the upstairs of our football building, and simply spend an hour or so decompressing from the day.
I don’t pretend, however, that my way was the only way or the right way – it was the only way and the right way, for me – yet the NFL diffuses and denies the problem while the NCAA looks only to draw attention to better prescription techniques.
Maybe there is a different way. In a lengthy piece by The Guardian last year, NFL player Eugene Monroe was interviewed concerning the growing problem in the NFL.
“Monroe, who does not use marijuana due to the NFL ban, said that at least 30 of his teammates have privately expressed support for his campaign and that he has talked to dozens of others in the NFL who share his beliefs.
Most players live with intense pain that is hard to articulate to those who haven’t played football, he said. “We lunge ourselves at each other as hard as we can … and it hurts,” he said, adding: “You continue to play through those injuries.”
In that vein, he is backing research into the use of cannabis and other substances ability to help players and their families with the pain. There are certainly better ways than opioids. The rate of abuse is climbing and as players get bigger and stronger, expect the problem to get worse. As we know, whatever problems plague the NFL will filter their way down to its ‘minor league affiliate’ NCAA football.
Personally, I could not think of a worse problem to filter down than misuse and abuse of opioid pain-killers. Make no mistake, though, that it is already happening on college campuses around the nation.
In that same ‘previous life’ as a power lifter, I also spent some time as a strength coach. I spoke with a lot of kids, a lot of coaches, and a lot of fans. One thing I know is that the use of marijuana was wide spread. By one estimate, over 50-percent of all college athletes – men and women – use marijuana on a semi-regular basis. On a college campus, this is hardly shocking. But it is indicative that young men and women who play intercollegiate athletics are looking to relieve stress, pain, or some combination thereof.
We worry about whether college athletes are getting compensated fairly and that is where the diffusion of a problem begins. It is like an illusionist on stage. David Copperfield did not actually make an elephant disappear, he simply coaxed your mind to look away from reality. While we are busy staring at the train-wreck of negative publicity surround concussion lawsuits, how much impact do pain killers have on chronic traumatic encephalopathy? The two are very likely inextricably linked. This double whammy of brain damage and drug addiction comes at a great cost to both families and society as a whole.
There are real problems, but potential real solutions to both of these problems. As we watch over the next few weeks while former college players sign NFL contracts and begin to make that ‘dream come true’ a reality, let’s not lose sight that many of them will suffer significant pain; some will be prescribed pain killers, and some will become addicted.
There is a growing problem here and there is no bliss in ignorance.
As I have written in the past, the sport of football is full of beauty. It is also full of collisions and significant pain at times. Let’s keep in mind the real struggles faced by many on the playing field and off as they further their dreams.
Personally, I support the value of finding alternatives to opioids for dealing with pain. Maybe if we can stop the pain-killer addiction in the NFL, we can then find a way to deal with concussions and better protecting the men who play this sport we love so much.
Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence – Helen Keller