NFL and Alcoholism: Football's Off-Field Battle with Booze

Written by Gerard Bullen | Edited By Editorial Team

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Widespread substance use and abuse within a world-famous, multi-million dollar national sports league – leading to numerous criminal charges and even deaths – is virtually unheard of anywhere in the world in these days of players’ lucrative contracts and global image rights.

However, and as hard it tries, it seems the American NFL is still the culture-driven and, sadly, the booze-ridden national game it’s always been.

Alcohol abuse on the scale seen in the recent history of American football – the U.S.’s #1 favorite sport – continues to make regular national headlines, and the pro-football league is constantly under scrutiny to get its house in order.

Whether it’s the actual players or others closely involved in the sport, like the team management or the team coaches, it’s the same old story.

Even when there’s nothing to be celebrated, yet another pro footballer, it seems is being charged with DUI.

The NFL Has Yet To Beat Alcoholism

Only last week, it was revealed that New York Jets safety Marcus Maye is currently facing 3 misdemeanor charges following a DUI arrest after an alleged car accident in Florida in February of this year – the inevitable DUI, plus DUI-related damage to property, and leaving the scene of an accident in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Unsurprisingly, Maye also faces a civil suit “in excess” of $30,000 filed by the innocent driver he crashed into.

However, Maye’s name on various court documents is just another in a long, long list of NFL players who go out, get drunk, and get wasted, then recklessly get in their car and attempt to make it home.

According to data compiled by national media company USA TODAY Sports, since the beginning of 2000 through to 2017, NFL players have been arrested at least 624 times on various charges, including 42 times this year.

Out of those 624 arrests, nearly a third (177 or 28%, to be precise) of the NFL players involved were charged with suspected DUIs – driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Despite the league’s various attempts to mitigate the problem, it remains the single-biggest criminal issue in the NFL.

It’s been happening for years, and in 2021, as Marcus Maye’s impending court case shows, it is still happening.

Just like total yards rushed, touchdowns, tackles, and interceptions, the statistics for NFL player arrests, criminal charges, sentences, and probation are easily found online.

It must be stated, though, in the interest of fairness, that the NFL’s rate for drunk driving DUIs and other alcohol-related incidents is still below those of the general population.

However, the problem undoubtedly continues to exist. According to one national newspaper journalist, the NFL is “a league full of rambunctious, wealthy young men who love to party almost as much as they love to drive fancy cars.”

Worryingly, though, as far as being in the national spotlight and setting a good example to our nation’s school kids and aspiring college football players, the players of the NFL are still coming up woefully short of the end zone.

Alcohol Use & Abuse in the U.S.: Facts & Stats

According to the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use & Health, 14.5 million people in the U.S. (aged 12 years and over) had alcohol use disorder – AUD; better known as alcoholism or alcohol addiction.

The number of men in this demographic amounted to 9 million (6.8% of all men in this age group8) and 5.5 million women7 (3.9% of all women in this age group).

Furthermore, according to the same 2019 survey, only 7.2% of the 14.5 million with an AUD diagnosis received any treatment whatsoever in the past year.

In fact, people with AUD were far more likely to go and ask for help from their primary care physician – the family doctor – for an alcohol-related medical problem, rather than specifically saying it’s for drinking too much alcohol.

However, even though the NFL’s continuing off-field battle with booze is still being fought, there have been notable personal victories coming to light as players with serious alcohol use and abuse issues seek to change their lives for the better.

Max Crosby

Case Study #1: Maxx Crosby, Las Vegas Raiders

In the spring of 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic was to fundamentally change the life of everyone in the U.S. and beyond, one NFL player entered a Hollywood alcohol rehab because his addiction to alcohol had fundamentally changed his life – for the worse.

On March 11, 2020, 24-year-old Maxx Crosby, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders, began a one-month-long stay in the alcohol rehab.

After his treatment had finished, Crosby moved into a “sober living” facility in Venice Beach. Sober living is best described as drug and alcohol-free, secure accommodation for those in recovery from substance use disorders (SUDs).

He remained there for the entire off-season, staying healthy and working on his recovery from AUD.

In a recent interview with sports media network ESPN as he neared his sobriety’s 18-month milestone, Crosby spoke candidly about his own off-field battle with the booze:

It got to a point after my rookie year, my life became unmanageable. Alcohol, partying and all that s*** became too much of a distraction in my life. It became just overwhelming.”

“I’ve always had issues with drinking and partying throughout high school and college. I’ve been able to slip by and get by, but it became too much for me.”

Alcoholism runs in my family, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“So, for me, I knew it was something that was always a crutch. I always knew I had a problem. I knew I couldn’t just drink like everybody else. “

“My first year of sobriety is always the hardest, and that was last year. Mentally, it was really tough for me. I’m almost a year-and-a-half sober now and… I’m really enjoying every single day.

Crosby’s ongoing recovery from alcoholism has duly earned the respect it fully deserves from the Las Vegas Raiders’ owner, Mark Davis:

It’s fantastic. Everybody has their demons. Obviously, he recognized he had a problem, and he went out and fixed it. Recognizing it and wanting to fix it is the No. 1 way to get the help you need. And he did it.”

What is the NFL Intervention Program?

Any professional player, whatever the sport, participating in what is a multi-million industry like the NFL, endeavors to stay as healthy as possible.

However, these players are young (and usually rich) men with a degree of celebrity status, too. Just like anyone else in that position, it can make them vulnerable.

Add in a family history of substance abuse, or another environmental factor for addiction, the pressure of consistently giving peak performances, and these players, who grew up with a mixture of partying and college football to start with, are even more vulnerable to substance use and future abuse.

The NFL’s Substance Abuse Policy

The NFL 2020 Policy & Program on Substances of Abuse prohibits the illegal use of drugs, and the abuse of prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and alcohol.

Last year, the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) reviewed its treatment of DUI, announcing that it would issue new punishments for DUI related charges – after a player is charged with one DUI, he will be suspended for one game, if it is the player’s first offense.

This is one of the ways that the Intervention Program for NFL players comes in.

NFL Alcohol Recovery

NFL Intervention Program, including Possible Addiction Treatment

NFL players who do not abide by the league’s Substance Abuse Policy, e.g. they are charged with DUI, enter the compulsory NFL Intervention Program, an in-house system where players are regularly tested, evaluated, treated, and monitored for alcohol and drug abuse.

However, getting pulled over by the local state police and found to be over the alcohol limit is not the only way to enter the Intervention Program.

How Does a Player Enter the NFL Intervention Program?

There are 3 ways to enter the NFL Intervention Program:

  • Failed Test
  • Behavior, and
  • Self-Admittance

The easiest to understand is Self-Admittance: an NFL player recognizes they have a substance use issue and seeks help from the league. Unfortunately, due to the confidentiality of the program at this stage, it is impossible to know how often this actually happens.

Behavior: Players who have just entered the league from college, and who have had a drug-related incident (arrest or otherwise) no more than 2 seasons prior to joining, can be entered into the Intervention Program.

The third method – a Failed Test – can happen to players under the following conditions:

  • Pre-employment: All rookies entering the league are subject to a drug test
  • Veteran Pre-employment: Any player who signs with a team in the off-season that was not on a roster for the final game of his prior team’s previous season is given a drug test
  • Pre-season Test: All players are subject to testing during this time frame – around 3 continuous months prior to the season starting. The test can be administered to either an entire team at once or to position groups. A player cannot be singled out to take this test

Note: This is the only testing of regular players who are not in the NFL Intervention Program; there is no random testing for drugs or alcohol at any other times, including during the season.

  • Player Agreement: – At the request of a team, a player may agree to take a drug test – this is usually part of their playing contract, and they will likely lose incentives if they fail it.

What Substances Does The NFL Test For?

NFL Drug & Alcohol Testing of Contracted Players


Testing Limit

  • Cocaine / Benzoylecgonine (the compound formed in the liver by the metabolism of cocaine, and subsequently excreted in the urine)

≥ 150 ng/mL

  • Marijuana / Delta 9-THC-carboxylic acid

≥ 35 ng/mL

  • Amphetamine and its analogs

≥ 300 ng/mL

  • Opiates – Morphine and codeine

≥ 300 ng/mL

  • Opioids – Hydrocodone, oxycodone, and heroin

≥ 300 ng/mL

  • PCP / Phencyclidine

≥ 25 ng/mL

  • MDMA (Ecstasy) / Methylenedioxymethamphetamine and its analogues

≥ 200 ng/mL

≥ .06 g/dl (%)

NFL Intervention Program: Stage 1

After entering the program, the player’s health is reviewed by a “Treating Clinician” who determines whether or not they need to be sent to inpatient treatment (a drug and alcohol rehab facility).

If it’s decided the player does, the Medical Director then reviews the clinician’s report, and then either approves or declines the inpatient treatment.

If it is approved, the Medical Director chooses the treatment facility.

If inpatient treatment is declined, the player may still be subject to a treatment plan.

Regardless of whether they are subject to a treatment plan or not, the player is given a testing schedule. This means at Stage 1, although players are tested more frequently than players not in the program, they are still not subjected to random testing.

A player can stay in Stage 1 for up to 90 days, again determined by the Medical Director.

NFL Intervention Program: Stage 2

This stage of monitoring is when a player is finally subjected to random testing. However, they may not be tested at all, but if they are, they cannot receive more than 10 tests in a single calendar month.

The player will be tested for the standard NFL Drug Panel (as described above), excluding alcohol unless it is determined that the player should be tested for it.

There is also a chance for additional substances to be added to what is being tested for – this is based on the player’s treatment plan, and is determined on a case-by-case basis.

The treatment plan determined in Stage 1 will be carried over into Stage 2 but may be amended upon entry to Stage 2 – based on the Medical Director’s review.

The duration of Stage 2 is either 24 months or 2 full seasons, whichever is shorter.

If the player remains in the program, a second review will be conducted an additional 6 months after the first.

A player discharged from Stage 2 will be treated the same as a player who has never entered it – with the same testing standard.

NFL Alcohol Recovery Program

NFL Intervention Program: Stage 3

Upon entry to Stage 3, a player will continue their treatment program from Stage 2, unless a review by the Medical Director determines that an alteration is required.

The testing schedule is the same as in Stage 2, with random tests (up to 10 per calendar month).

Players can be punished for violations in Stages 1 and 2 with fines. However, in Stage 3, any incident results in a 1-year banishment from the league.

A player who has received a 1-year banishment is still required to follow their treatment plan and submit to testing.

Participation in Stage 3 has no predefined time limit, and it can last until retirement if the Medical Director thinks this is appropriate.

Case Study #2: Jerry Brown, Dallas Cowboys (Deceased)

Just like the world outside of football, not everyone gets the chance to change their lives for the better. For some NFL players, being involved in a DUI is the very real end of the road for their professional playing career, as their lives are tragically lost.

Even worse, they don’t even need to be the driver, as the following case study sadly demonstrates.

Jerry Brown was a 25-year-old linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. In the early hours of December 8, 2012, Brown was a passenger in the car of teammate Josh Brent, who drove drunk, drove too fast, hit an outside curb, and flipped his car, killing Brown.

Irving police reported that the 321-pound Brent had failed field sobriety tests immediately after the deadly crash.

He subsequently refused a breathalyzer test but, because his crash resulted in a death, authorities could draw his blood against his will. Brent’s blood-alcohol level was reportedly 0.18.

Josh Brent was eventually found guilty of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years of probation.

Josh Brent retired from playing pro-football in 2015 and took a position in the Dallas Cowboys’ scouting department. Even though he had successfully completed alcohol rehab, he was arrested again in June 2019 for being intoxicated.

Jerry Brown’s death in 2012 marked the third time since 1998 that an NFL player had killed another person because of a suspected DUI.

Case Study #3: Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders

Maxx Crosby, featured earlier in this article, was helped through the early stages of his recovery by teammate and Las Vegas Raiders icon, Darren Waller, himself an NFL player who struggled with alcohol use disorder (AUD).

At age 28, Waller has the potential to be one of the best tight ends to ever play the position, but, unbeknown to many around him, he was slowly destroying himself – and his potential – with alcohol and opioids.

Waller nearly died before, eventually, he found his own recovery.

Alcohol and different drugs – Percocet, marijuana, Adderall, or codeine – if it offered a high, Waller would try it.

He actually failed his first NFL drug test, then another.

Eventually, on June 30, 2017, the NFL suspended Waller for the entire 2017 season.

Two months later, Waller, sitting alone in his Jeep in a deserted parking lot, took a handful of pills. What he experienced next was not the high he was expecting.

Later, he’d understand that the opioids he took were laced with fentanyl, the exceptionally potent synthetic opioid.

He passed out. Fortunately, after 4 hours and now drenched in sweat, he woke up.

For the first time since his addiction to alcohol and drugs had truly begun, he didn’t feel so invincible anymore. What’s more – he was afraid.

One month later, and fully supported by his NFL team, Waller checked in to the McLean Borden Cottage in Camden, Maine, for a 30-day inpatient rehabilitation program.

Finally, his recovery had begun.

What expectations really do is reflect our impatience and our insecurities, our inability to live life on life’s terms. I’ve run from conversations, from relationships and interactions, my whole life.

“Now, I will walk straight toward that discomfort. Because that’s produced more positive results than running ever did.” – Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders

In August 2018, 11 months after he’d gone to rehab, the NFL reinstated Waller, and after the 2019 season, Waller founded The Darren Waller Foundation, dedicated to helping the youth of Las Vegas fight their own battles with substance use.

SpringBoard Recovery is a professional drug and alcohol rehab center located in Scottsdale, Arizona (near Phoenix), and, as part of our services, we offer an accredited intensive outpatient alcohol treatment program.

We have earned many years of full accreditation from the Joint Commission, which expects the highest national standards for addiction treatment, and we are committed to continually improving patient care.

We accept most major health insurance coverage, and clients travel from all over the U.S. to receive their personalized treatment with us, with many staying in our on-site, substance-free Sober Living accommodation.

Learn more about the exceptional benefits of our successful outpatient alcohol addiction recovery program and our high-quality Sober Living accommodation here.

External Sources:

  • National Football League: Official Site. Homepage. 2021. Available at NFL.com.
  • USA Today. NFL Player Arrests Database: Records Since 2000. 2021. Available at USAToday.com.
  • NFL Arrests. Homepage. 2021. Available at NFLArrest.com.
  • Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Webcast Slides for the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use & Health. September 2020. Available at SAMHSA.gov.
  • National Football League: Official Site. Player Stats – Maxx Crosby. 2021. Available at NFL.com.
  • ESPN Sports Network. Las Vegas Raiders DE Maxx Crosby Says He’s 18 Months Sober After Stay in Rehab Last Offseason. August 2021. Available at ESPN.com.
  • National Football League Players Association. NFL 2020 Policy & Program on Substances of Abuse. 2020. Available at NFLPA.com.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Alcohol. 2021. Available at DrugAbuse.gov.
  • National Football League: Official Site. Player Stats – Jerry Brown. 2021. Available at NFL.com.
  • National Football League: Official Site. Player Stats – Darren Waller. 2021. Available at NFL.com.
  • Darren Waller Foundation. Homepage. 2021. Available at DarrenWaller.org.

  • Author: Gerard Bullen

    Gerard has been writing exclusively for the U.S. substance addiction treatment industry for many years, providing a range of medically-reviewed work, including white papers, long-form, and short-form content articles, and blog posts for accredited addiction treatment centers. A member of the American Medical Writers Association, Gerard’s specific focus is substance addiction (an area that has impacted Gerard’s personal life in several ways), and he is particularly drawn to the topics of professional, evidence-based treatment, new and alternative therapies, and enabling readers to find their own sustainable, long-term recovery. Gerard lives and works in Maryland, U.S., he’s happily married, and a proud father. His interests include hiking with the family, reading fiction (from the classics to virtually all of the current NYT bestseller list), American and British film classics, and his beloved dogs, Toby and Coco, both rescued from the local pound.

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