Substance Abuse and Professional Sports

by | Aug 29, 2017 | Recovery | 0 comments

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Substance abuse has become a global health crisis and major epidemic, to say the least. It affects anyone from any demographic, age, geographical location, economic status and ethnic background. We sometimes put athletes on a pedestal, but they are as human as anyone else. Which means they face the same challenges, temptations and pressures of life that often lead to alcoholism and addiction. Over recent years, there has been considerable concern over the link between drug addiction and professional sports.

Countless sportsmen and sportswomen have struggled with substance abuse. Drugs and alcohol have ended many promising careers, and sometimes lives. And the problem only seems to be worsening. Every other day, we read stories of athletes failing drug tests, overdosing on controlled substances or entering rehab. With the issue appearing so widespread, it warrants further investigation. Could there be a connection between sports culture and substance abuse?

The Link Between Professional Sports and Substance Abuse

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(Eugene Onischenko/Shutterstock)

Many sports fans experience feelings of disappointment or empathy when we hear stories of sports legends like Lamar Odom checking into rehab. It’s not uncommon to read stories of renowned athletes like Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps getting themselves into trouble over addiction related scandals. Even when we can relate, watching our heroes struggle sometimes causes us to feel dismay or disillusionment. Nonetheless, it happens often enough that we may wonder whether there is a link between substance abuse and professional sports.

The increasing occurrence of such incidences provides evidence that such a link may indeed exist. In addition, research has established that there are some underlying reasons why professional athletes are always making headlines for substance abuse and addiction. Athletes are surrounded by several risk factors that may expose them to addiction, or at least predispose them to addictive behavior. Such factors include the use of opioid painkillers, traumatic brain injury and potentially low dopamine functionality.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Addiction

Full contact sports such as American football, rugby, and boxing have a high number of athletes who have suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI). The effects of such injuries can spread further than most people realize. It’s easy to see the direct consequences of a head injury from a boxer’s punch but miss the addiction following its wake.

Many people don’t even know that TBI can be directly linked to substance abuse, but research findings have discovered several links between brain injury and addiction. A recent study on brain trauma in sports showed that repeated blows to the head or even a single dramatic blow could cause degeneration in the part of the brain responsible for controlling impulses. According to the study, this damage to the frontal lobe can lead to emotional instability, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, problems with impulse control and a depressed mood. Not only do these symptoms often coincide with addiction, but many of them quite often lead to its onstart.

Athletes with TBI were also found to be heavier drinkers than those without. The chances of addiction are made even worse by the partying culture that is synonymous with athletic superstars. This culture, in addition to the painkiller prescriptions many athletes receive for their injuries, can make it all too easy to develop substance dependency when the same individual is also suffering from the symptoms described above.

Athletes and Painkiller Abuse

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It does not take a particularly traumatic injury to ignite a player’s substance abuse. In the highly competitive world of sports, whether in high school baseball or professional rugby, an injury can ruin a career. To keep athletes on the field for longer and or to mask the pain of chronic injuries, doctors may prescribe prescription painkillers. Such prescriptions are not inherently wrong when used under medical supervision for short-term pain relief. However, so many athletes use these opioid-based painkillers for longer than prescribed, eventually getting hooked.

Young athletes are particularly susceptible to addiction. For many young athletes, addiction starts with prescription medication given to them by doctors. The doctor may not be fully aware of the risk of addiction, and the young patient may not be well instructed on the proper use of such pain medication.

Another common cause of painkiller addiction among athletes is self-medication for psychological issues arising from undiagnosed trauma to the head. Undiagnosed concussions are common in sports, hence increasing the risk of opioid abuse. More than 50 percent of former athletes admitted to using prescription meds while actively playing sports. And 70 percent of those on the meds say they misused drugs at some point.

Addiction and the Dopamine Reward System

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International research conducted by several medical bodies support that dopamine can play a significant role in addiction. Athletes get feelings of pleasure from physical activity and personal achievements such as winning the league championship. This elicits a rise in dopamine levels in the same way drugs do. Sometimes, tolerance to adrenaline from sports can lead to a reliance on other methods to get similar brain rewards. Increased tolerance coupled with a craving for the occasional dopamine rush predisposes athletes to a life of substance abuse and addiction. When the player then develops a tolerance to their new substance of choice, it might not be long before things begin to spiral out of control.

Public Struggles with Substance Abuse

Along with the publicity and stardom of being an elite athlete comes the pressure of living up to the hype. This is a battle that has lured many to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. In some cases, they may believe they perform better, especially if they take painkillers to mask an injury that might otherwise keep them off the field. Others look to cope with the stress of constantly striving to improve under the watchful eyes of fans and critics. Some get help and find their way out of addiction, but others never get redemption. Despite the vast number of people who bounce back stronger than ever, many also watch their careers disintegrate entirely.

We have seen countless athletes struggle with substance abuse over the years. Dwight Gooden, former Mets and Yankees superstar pitcher, struggled with drugs and alcohol throughout his career. In his 2009 biography, eight-time Grand Slam champion Andre Agassi admitted to occasionally using crystal meth. Another star who has publicly suffered from drug abuse is the Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona. He became addicted to cocaine in the early 80s. Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods, Ronda Rousey, Lamar Odom, Chris Herren, Josh Hamilton and many more have all suffered. Fortunately, they offer us more than cautionary tales. Many of them also offer stories of hope, inspiration that we can achieve sobriety through rigorous effort, earnest intention and strong dedication.

Recovery for Athletes

High-achieving professional athletes can lead even more rewarding lives in recovery. It’s no surprise that recovery can be just as challenging and thrilling as substance abuse, albeit in a positive way. The athlete can continue to move in the right direction by replacing addictive tendencies with healthy ones through activities such as mindfulness, meditation,and cognitive behavioral therapy.

A critical part of recovery for any athlete is leaving a contaminated environment. They need to go back to an environment that facilitates wise choices. Holistic treatment options that incorporate multiple techniques can help. In addition, many benefit from the support of their fans. After his wife posted about his recovery from painkiller addiction, WWE star Mike Bennett stated on Twitter that the response from his fan base had been overwhelmingly positive. Through the combination of treatment and support, athletes who have battled addiction can enjoy the rewards of a successful life in recovery. And in time, it may come to mean even more to them than any of the successes they achieve on the field.

Remember, athletes are just people. They experience many of the same difficulties as us. By contrast, we are equally capable of achieving recovery. Never give up on yourself. Keep working toward success. One of these days, you just might wake up and realize that you have already achieve it.


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