With Super Bowl Sunday just two days away, it’s important to keep in mind that every player on the field in feeling the pressure to perform well regardless of how their bodies might be feeling. Painkiller abuse in the National Football League (NFL) is an unfortunate part of the organization’s culture and history. Many players’ football careers can be extended through the power of prescription drug because they allow the player to play even while seriously injured. However, this definitively increases the likelihood of long-term substance abuse issues and a steep decline in the quality of life during or after the player’s career.

Last year a case filed by former NFL players who claim they suffered permanent damage, addiction, or other harm from routine opioid and painkiller prescriptions was re-opened by an appeals court. Many of the plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit complained that doctors gave “hundreds, if not thousands” of pills and injections with painkillers but were never warned of the side effects and long-term consequences. Ex-Chicago Bears player Richard Dent said he was left with an enlarged heart, permanent nerve damage, and an addiction to painkillers. This is not the first time that the issue of drug abuse in the NFL has come to the spotlight.

Enabling Painkiller Abuse in the NFL

In the past, NFL teams have violated federal laws concerning the governance of prescription drugs and have also disregarded general guidelines from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on how to store, track, transport, and distribute controlled substances according to sealed court documents in the lawsuit. These sealed documents include testimonies from medical personnel describing instances where officials had been made aware if the ongoing abuses, and either complied slowly or refused to comply at all. The filing also asserted that every doctor deposed so far testified they violated at least one drug law and regulation while serving as a team doctor.

These team physicians also dispensed painkillers and prescription-strength anti-inflammatory medication far beyond anything the NFL has acknowledged or presented in public records. In 2012, each team was prescribed on average roughly 5,700 doses of anti-inflammatory drugs and 2,200 doses of controlled medications to their players, averaging out to around six or seven pills or injections weekly per player. These alarming numbers begs the question of whether physicians are looking out for the players’ health or more focused on making sure they can continue to play on the field. A 2011 Washington University study revealed that as a result of this regular over prescription, retired NFL players are four times as likely to misuse and develop a substance abuse disorder involving prescription opioids. This study also revealed that less than 40% of players received their prescription drugs from a doctor— most had dealers they regularly received painkillers from or were given them by teammates.

Reconstructing the Culture

Although the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are looking for compensation for the long-term damage done to their bodies as a result of the toxic culture of drug abuse, something must be done for those currently in the NFL dealing with it. Players are pressured to take painkillers so they can continue performing, and staff feel the need to administer them to maintain competition within the league. There needs to be a discussion and examination of painkiller abuse in the NFL, specifically regarding player safety and federal guidance regarding narcotics simply to increase a team’s competitive performance. In order to reach this point, we must de-stigmatize addiction and treat players like human beings with lives outside of the field and futures not involved with their physical performance.

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