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Tackling Addiction: The Intersection of Football and Addiction Recovery

Every year, Americans tune in for a whopping 970 billion minutes of professional football. It’s the number one spectator sport in the United States, without a doubt.

And when those stadium lights flip on, it’s showtime. But for some professional football players, there’s a dark side to the career.

According to a 2010 survey, more than half (52%) of retired NFL players used opioids during their professional football careers. And 71% of players reported misusing those painkillers.

But hey, football’s not all bad. It teaches important life skills like teamwork, discipline, and resilience. Playing the game can even help you get back on track after dealing with addiction. And let’s not forget all the loyal football fans out there—we’ll dive into that, too.

Professional Football and Addiction

Even though pro athletes have plenty of resources at their fingertips, the fame and spotlight don’t make them immune to mental health struggles. And addiction doesn’t discriminate—it can affect anyone.

Being stuck in a negative, addictive pattern makes your life feel like a rollercoaster—you can’t stop doing the thing that’s hurting you the most. For football players, it might be drugs, alcohol, or painkillers.

The immense pressure to perform well, the physical toll of the game, and mental health stigma can be a recipe for disaster, leading some to turn to substances as a way to cope. Not to mention, at any moment, many of them risk being cut from the team they’re expected to give their all for.

If you’re thinking, “Sure, but their job pays millions of dollars,” you’re not wrong. But when all is said and done, is all that money worth your mental and physical well-being? Some would argue yes. Others are okay with staying a fan of the sport.

The “addictive personality”

Medically speaking, there’s no such thing as an “addictive personality,” but there is a noteworthy overlap between traits often associated with athletic success and those linked to addiction susceptibility.

Performing at the highest level means a person has to be committed and dedicated to their craft. Although many are naturally talented, professional football players spend years perfecting their sport, working with trainers and other experts to ensure they continue to perform at peak levels.

Sometimes, this pressure to be the best can be too much. That’s where addiction can sneak in. As it does for many people struggling with addiction, it can begin slowly and build up over time, especially if people don’t seek the necessary help.

Mental health stigma

Although it’s improving, there is still a significant stigma surrounding mental health, especially for professional athletes. Football players should be “big and strong,” for some, that doesn’t include talking about your feelings.

Mental Health In Real-Life

Playing on a stage as big as the NFL shines a spotlight on you as a person, good and bad. Many players who have gone through some dark moments during their careers faced turning points and now advocate for addiction and mental health awareness.

Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley took a break from his time with the Atlanta Falcons in 2021 to focus on his mental health.

Ridley told Sports Illustrated he was taking painkillers just to be able to play after suffering a broken foot when he experienced a home invasion that brought back some traumatic childhood events.

Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 football season for violating the NFL’s gambling policy but was dealing with significant mental health issues at the time. He considers the suspension as a blessing in disguise.

“I had to hit rock bottom, so I could get healthy. Thank God, with the help of my therapist, I was able to understand what was happening to me. I learned the names for the things that I was feeling — stress, depression, anxiety — and how to cope with those emotions,” Ridley said.

Former Green Bay Packer tight end Brandon Bostick fell into a deep depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, but his struggle with his mental health began much earlier. A 2014 NFC Championship Game mistake cost the Packers a trip to the Super Bowl.

For the next six years, Bostick was sad every day. After realizing he needed help, he admitted himself into a mental health facility.

“I was just at the bottom. Rock bottom,” Bostick told We Are Green Bay. “So, I went to a mental health facility in California. I went there for 30 days just to get the help I need and support. I got diagnosed with severe anxiety and major depression disorder.”

Now, Bostick coaches youth football and openly shares his story. The former player co-founded Sage Elite Healing, a mental health and wellness center for athletes in Colorado.

Retirement and mental health

Life after football can hit pretty hard for players, and it’s not just about missing the adrenaline rush on the field. Some retired players face mental health and addiction challenges after they hang up their cleats, and it’s easy to see why.

The massive shift from spotlight to sideline causes some players to struggle with feelings of loss, identity issues, and depression and anxiety can sneak in as they transition out of the game.

But with the proper support, retired players can tackle these mental health challenges (pun intended). When they seek help, many find a new purpose and fulfillment in life after football.

The Football Fan Experience

Whether watching games live in a stadium or tuning in from the comfort of your home, the emotional rollercoaster of being a football fan is a unique experience.

Fantasy football

The concept of fantasy football is simple. You choose your team of NFL players, and each player earns points based on their performance in actual NFL games. Because you’re cheering for your favorite team and your fantasy players, fantasy sports adds another layer of excitement and competition.

According to the Fantasy Sports & Gaming Association, there are 62.5 million people playing fantasy sports in the USA and Canada. And 79% of those participants play fantasy football.

For many fans, fantasy football is more than just a game. It’s a community. Fans can compete with friends and family or play online against strangers. The interactive nature keeps them hooked throughout the season. And with the rise of online platforms and apps, managing your team is easy.

Dealing with Disappointment

Football fans encounter emotional challenges, too, including dealing with losses and controversies. When your team loses, or your favorite player gets hurt, it can completely change your mood.

Fans must recognize when their dedication goes too far and find ways to navigate the ups and downs while maintaining a healthy perspective. It’s good to step back and realize it’s just a game.

Football as a Recovery Tool

The sport offers strategies that can be adapted for successful recovery from addiction.

Teamwork and support

The strong bonds formed on football teams can translate to recovery groups and mentorship programs. Just as teammates rely on each other during the game, those in recovery rely on others for strength and can find purpose in supporting their peers.

Discipline and responsibility

Rigorous training schedules and the focus on achieving goals can be adapted to build structure and resilience in recovery.

Setting goals

Just as football is about goal-setting and achieving wins, people in recovery can use similar strategies to mark progress and celebrate their wins, big or small.

Physical fitness and mental well-being

The positive impact of exercise on mental health is beneficial for both football players and fans. A healthy lifestyle is a vital component in addiction recovery and overall well-being.

Overcoming setbacks

Football teaches resilience in the face of defeat. No matter the setback, learning to bounce back is a valuable lesson that becomes a driving force for those in recovery.

Organizations making a difference

Mental health and addiction support organizations play a crucial role in raising awareness, offering support, and advocating for better mental health and addiction resources for both professional football players and fans.

NFL Life Line

For members of the NFL family—current and former NFL players, coaches, team and league staff, and their family members who may be in crisis.

NFL Life Line is a free, confidential, and independently operated resource that connects callers with trained counselors to help individuals work through personal or emotional crises. This service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

NFL Player Care Foundation

Staffing licensed clinical social workers who provide expert consultation and serve as liaisons between former players and service providers, referring individuals to treatment services through partners and benefits.

NFL Total Wellness

They provide wellness resources to all members of the NFL family, including education and programming at every stage of the player’s life cycle.

The Trust

They provide former players with the support they need to succeed after football. The earned benefits and resources made available were created with leading experts in close collaboration with active and former NFL players.

Mental Health America

They’re advancing the mental health and well-being of all people living in the U.S. through public education, research, advocacy, public policy, and direct service.

NAMI

They are providing advocacy, education, support, and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives.

Addiction is not the end. For many, recovery can be the start of a brand-new beginning. People can heal and move forward with hope, support, and the right game plan.

Do your part, support people in recovery, and advocate for addiction awareness within athletic communities. To learn more, head to our website. 

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