Opioids in the NFL


MAY 2, 2019

Edited by Editorial Team

Editorial Team

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Opioids in the NFL

It’s no secret that football is a grueling contact sport. Injuries are quite common and in some cases, injuries are so severe they result in permanent or semi-permanent disability. The most devastating injuries often require intense physical therapy and some injuries are permanent in nature. Professional football players endure years of rigorous practice routines along with pre-season, regular season, and post-season games.

This high degree of physical activity on a professional level quickly begins to take its toll on players and many seek medical treatment for relief. Professional football players are expected to win game after game with little time for recovery, leading many of them to resort to prescription medications to keep up. Opioids in the NFL are a growing problem that has just recently begun to get the attention it deserves.



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How Prevalent Are Opioids in the NFL?

So how widespread is opioid addiction among current and former NFL players? According to a 2018 study published by the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, over 25 percent of retired NFL players reported that they had used opioid painkillers in the prior 30 days. In addition, about half of those who’d used prescription pain meds indicated they did not use the medications as directed. This data represents a growing trend in professional sports, especially those where players frequently deal with debilitating injuries. Further, the most severe injuries often require major surgery. In these cases, players are prescribed strong painkillers to combat excruciating post-op pain, further increasing their risk of addiction.

Football players are required to maintain high weight for their profession, making it even easier to take more and more of these medications. Commonly prescribed opioid-based pain meds include OxyContin and are often prescribed in high doses based on a person’s height and body weight. The more a person consumes, the more it takes to alleviate symptoms. Many players also develop a psychological dependency on opioid painkillers after taking them consistently for years. Some start seeking stronger opioid painkillers like fentanyl and hydrocodone (Vicodin).

What Does the Research Say?

According to National Institute of Health (NIH) research, professional football players are, in fact, at a higher risk of developing an addiction to opioid medications. However, abuse of opioid painkillers doesn’t just start at retirement. Another study, conducted by Washington University School of Medicine researchers, indicated that of 1,500 study participants, more than 70 percent admitted to abusing prescription pain medications during their NFL careers. In addition, the abuse of these medications continued after retirement from the league.

Addiction to prescription painkillers is not the only issue current and former player have to contend with. Research has continually shown the correlation between prescription medication abuse and the development of alcohol dependency. The opioid-alcohol combination is particularly dangerous and can lead to short-term effects like drowsiness and difficulty breathing as well as long-term effects like increased risk of opioid overdose and liver disease.

Once a player becomes dependent on opioid medication, it’s common to seek prescription pain medications outside of their primary care doctor’s office. This can lead players to visit multiple doctors – also referred to as doctor shopping – to get access to more painkillers to feed their addiction. Others attempt to find prescription medications on the street, which creates an even bigger problem. Studies continue to show that many heroin addictions start out as an addiction to opioid painkillers. Additionally, funding an addiction to prescription pain killers can become quite costly – often up to $10 per tablet for high-dosage tablets –  so some addicted individuals see heroin as a cheaper option with the same properties as opioid painkillers.


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Life After the Game

Whether a player has a short or lengthy football career, a lot of players sustain injuries that follow them into retirement. Previously, both minor and moderate injuries were handled with over-the-counter medicines, physical therapy, and specialized training regimens. Now, many players are prescribed highly-addictive opioid painkillers instead. Once a player begins taking opioid pain medications, tolerance for the drugs builds up rather quickly. The dosages that were effective when the person fist started taking pain meds become ineffective, prompting them to take more than prescribed or take painkillers more often than recommended.

NFL officials are aware of the problem plaguing current and former players. The League Commissioner, Roger Goodell, indicated that the NFL is taking the painkiller epidemic seriously and is committed to finding solutions. Mr. Goodell acknowledged that the NFL employs medical staff who are trained to provide care to athletes who compete on a professional level.

However, many former players don’t think the NFL is doing enough to address the problem and several players have filed lawsuits against the league. These individuals state that the NFL is a high-pressure environment and the league has turned a blind eye to the overprescribing and abuse of opioid-based medications and fail to warn players of the dangers of prescription painkillers. Players assert that the NFL has made it entirely too easy to access opioid painkillers and this unrestricted access is what makes addiction too rampant throughout the league.

Help for NFL Players and Retirees Struggling with Addiction

For NFL players and retirees who have struggled with addiction, seeking help from a reputable treatment facility with qualified staff is essential. The addiction specialists at SpringBoard Recovery offer the care and education necessary to beat an addiction to opioid painkillers. From medically-supervised detox to individual and group therapy, those seeking help for addiction can be sure they are getting the level of care they need. Comprehensive addiction treatment also focuses on long-term strategies to maintain sobriety through all-inclusive aftercare programs.

If you or a loved one is suffering from drug dependency, contact the professionals at SpringBoard Recovery to begin the journey to recovery.


  1. Topend Sports: https://www.topendsports.com/world/lists/fittest-sport/espn.htm
  2. WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/guide/pain-management-treatment-overview#1
  3. GoodRx:https://www.goodrx.com/drug-guide
  4. ESPN: http://www.espn.com/espn/eticket/story?page=110128/PainkillersNews
  5. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: https://medicine.wustl.edu/news/podcast/retired-nfl-players-using-painkillers/
  6. FDA: https://www.fda.gov/media/78453/download
  7. MedlinePlus: https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a601006.html
  8. Drug Free: https://drugfree.org/drugs/prescription-pain-relievers-opioids/
  9. Verywell mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/tips-for-staying-clean-and-sober-67900

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MAY 2, 2019

Robert Castan is a member of the Executive Leadership Team at SpringBoard Recovery. Robert started his professional career as a house manager and has become an industry leader and trusted voice in the treatment world. He brings extensive knowledge of organizational growth, industry-leading outcomes, and comprehensive marketing to SpringBoard Recovery. Robert has been walking his own path of recovery for over 10 years. This path has truly driven his ambition to help make treatment available to others who are struggling with addiction. Robert finds great joy in traveling and keeping physically active, with an emphasis on biking. Robert resides in Arizona with his husband and two four-legged children.   The U.S. Alcohol Crisis, Still Deadlier Than the Opioid Epidemic   Zombies and Other Future Threats to the Health of American Youth Dire Mental Health: A Catalyst for Post-Pandemic Drug Addiction The Benefits of Rehab Center Staff Working Their Own Recovery Opinion: The Opioid Crisis + COVID-19 = The Perfect Storm Robert Castan on Successful Addiction Treatment and Entrepreneurship Castan: The road less traveled of addiction & recovery in Scottsdale Opioids & COVID Driving Phoenix’s Rising Fatal Drug Overdoses Opinion: The Opioid Crisis + COVID-19 = The Perfect Storm Successful Addiction Treatment Programs & Entrepreneurship

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