No one can resist the Super Bowl. It is an afternoon for cheering … jeering … and just enjoying football at its finest. With tens of millions of dollars at stake in advertisements and promotions, have you ever considered the impact this single day has on those players hitting the field?
The Super Bowl is just one game, after all, yet the stakes for winning surpass all other games – and the quest to get there create a culture screams: this game is more important than anything else! And that signals a player that, despite grueling injury, he must keep going.
The Road to Injury
Sure, football is a contact sport. We expect injury. But what is the true cost of those injuries? Fans were shocked to learn in recent weeks about a new problem emerging in the sport: opiate reliance. According to emails obtained by the Washington Post, at least one team (The Atlanta Falcons) have been concerned about the “excessive reliance” on painkillers to treat players and keep them on the field for years, yet nothing has changed in the way they treat their player’s injuries. That concern, though admitted in the emails did not change the team’s action regarding for injured players, leading to a lawsuit by more than 1,800 former NFL players who say they were urged to take painkillers for long periods of time with little regard to their long-term effects on their health.
According to reports, the average NFL team spends roughly $30,000 annually on pain killing medications, yet the Falcons spent $81,000 in 2009 alone – that’s nearly three times the league average. These claims have been a real eye-opener to many, who fear that the football culture itself is creating a dependency on opiates that could be extending beyond professional sports to the amateur arena.
High School Athletes Show a Growing Dependency on Opiates
General prescription drug use quadrupled from 1999-2010. While a growing epidemic amongst the general population, special attention should be given to high school athletes, who show a growing use of pain killers. In one report, published by a researcher at the University of Michigan, it is estimated that 11% of high school athletes have used a narcotic pain killer (like Vicodin or OxyContin) for non-medical purposes before they graduate. Thousands more are prescribed these powerful drugs while rehabilitating from injuries sustained on the playing field.
Another report printed in the Journal of Adolescent Health, says that “male adolescent athletes who participated in competitive sports across the three-year study period had two times greater odds of being prescribed painkillers during the past year and had four times greater odds of medically misusing painkillers (i.e., using them to get high and using them too much) when compared to males who did not participate in competitive sports.”
Why Football is Churning Out Opiate Abusers
Football has always been a physical sport. Those who hit the field know that an injury is not only possible – it is likely. With more than 2 million injuries sustained just at the high school level every year (this includes everything from a sprain and strain to head injuries and broken bones), football remains one of the top injury-producing sports being played. But it isn’t the sport itself – or its high injury rates – causing this recent epidemic. It is rather, a culture that tells a hurting player to get back on the field. Without giving the player the appropriate time to heal, high dose painkillers are needed to get a player back in the game.
While there is a time and place for treating injuries with opioids for a short period of time, long term use often results in tolerance and dependency; and addiction experts understand the danger of further drug abuse when dependency occurs.
Tolerance & Dependency Lead to Long Term Drug Use
Although painkillers can be used successfully to treat pain after severe injury and surgery, being aware of the signs of tolerance and dependency are extremely important to ward off a possible addiction to it (and other drugs) later on. Even the CDC warned doctors in its 2014 report Physicians are Fueling Prescription Painkiller Overdoses, that writing prescriptions for these high-level painkillers without proper oversight is causing a real epidemic throughout the sports society.
It has been proven that patients who build up a tolerance – or even dependency – for these drugs often turn to harder, cheaper versions (like heroin) to get their next high. So, what is the answer?
First, doctors must recognize that opiate addiction is real and that patients at the highest risk of addiction are those who sustain multiple injuries over the course of their sports careers. Next, using these drugs regularly is a practice that must be stopped. Thirdly, the football culture (as well as other sports), must acknowledge that using high level pain killers to allow players to get back on the field is a dangerous practice that must be changed.
Yes, football is a demanding sport. Injury is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that players should be put at risk for an opioid addiction simply to get back on the field faster than they should. There are other ways to alleviate pain and help a player heal. Isn’t it time that amateur and professional players begin using these healing alternatives first?