The widespread culture of prescription opioid abuse in the NFL has been well documented. In a recent example, more than 1,500 players have joined a lawsuit alleging their lives were irreparably harmed due to their career-related painkiller abuse. In such a competitive environment, many players resort to the most drastic measures to keep themselves playing just a little longer and a little harder while doing everything they can to temporarily alleviate the inevitable pain of competitive play. More and more NFL alumni are coming out from behind the shadows to relay their own personal experiences with opioid abuse during their playing years. The most recent of which is former San Diego Charger and New York Giant, Shane Olivea.
Drafted to the league in 2004, the 35-year-old retired offensive tackle began abusing painkillers early on in his career. In a recent interview with the Columbus Dispatch, he confessed to being high every day following his rookie year in San Diego. At the height of his addiction, Olivea was taking 125 Vicodin per day. When he finally went to treatment, after spending over half a million dollars on pills and growing to nearly 400 pounds, his doctors told him that they’d never seen a living person with the amount opioids he had in his system. This jarring and tragic distinction kick-started his recovery and forced him to pick up the pieces of his life.
Today, after being clean for eight years, Olivea is a recent graduate of Ohio State and hopes to use his experiences on and off the field to help others. Other NFL alumni, however, aren’t so lucky. A study conducted by researchers at Washington University indicated that retired NFL players misuse opioid pain medications at a rate more than four times that of the general population and this misuse starts during their playing days. There are countless stories of the league playing fast and loose with prescription dispensation in an effort to prolong players’ careers and performance. Key findings of the study include:
- 52 percent of the retired players said they used prescription pain medication during their playing days. Of those, 71 percent said they misused the drugs then, and 15 percent of the misusers acknowledged misusing the medication within the past 30 days.
- Those who misused prescription painkillers while playing were three times more likely to misuse the drugs today than those who used the pills as prescribed while playing.
- 63 percent of the retired players who used prescription pain pills while playing obtained the medications from a nonmedical source: a teammate, coach, trainer, family member, dealer or the Internet.
Since heightened public scrutiny of their painkiller dispensation practices, along with a $1 billion verdict in a landmark concussion case, the NFL claims to be enacting reforms that protect players; however, in one of the most competitive institutions on the planet, where hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake every year, it remains to be seen what results these measures will ultimately yield.