15 January 2019

Athletes who struggle with substance abuse after their careers end

Washington University in St. Louis conducted a research study on 644 retired National Football League (NFL) players regarding their use of prescription painkillers. Approximately 52% of players reported taking painkillers at some time in their career. In this group, 71% reported abusing these substances, and 15% continued to do so in retirement. This study suggests that retired NFL athletes use prescription opioids at a much higher rate than the general population. These numbers present a serious concern for athletes being susceptible to substance use disorder. 

There are various reasons that can be attributed to retired athletes developing substance use disorders as well as co-occurring mental illness. Many of these athletes are under a lot of pressure to stay in the spotlight during their career and painkillers enable them to keep playing, despite suffering from painful injuries. After these medications have been taken and abused for extended periods of time, this can lead to a physical dependency which has the potential to develop into a full blown drug addiction. 

Another theory as to why professional athletes may be prone to addiction is one involving the release of dopamine in the brain. Exercise is known to release endorphins, such as dopamine, which controls the pleasure and reward center of the brain. When an athlete retires, they may not receive the same levels of these chemicals in their brain that they are accustomed to, and sometimes turn to substances in order to get the same desired reward. This alteration in brain functioning can also lead to the development of behavioral disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Another issue for many professional athletes is feelings of abandonment after their career ends. Former Leicester Tigers player Leon Lloyd told the Sport Resolutions conference that he struggled seeing somebody else wearing what he considered to be his shirt, after he was forced to take early retirement due to injury. “I wanted them to miss me”, said Lloyd, who has written a book on the issues he faced on retirement from sport. For some, the lack of any discernible career path after sport can lead to substance abuse.

Pro athletes who have overcome addiction

Dan Johnson

Dan Johnson of the Miami Dolphins was reportedly referred to by his teammates as the ‘King of Pain’ due to several injuries he experienced throughout his career. He admits becoming addicted to painkillers after receiving two back surgeries, and he continued to abuse opioids after the end of his career. For Johnson, his dependence on substances led him to contemplating suicide more than once. Towards the end of his opioid addiction, he was taking up to 1,000 Vicodin a month, but was able to overcome his addiction through suboxone treatment. 

Ryan O’Callaghan

Ryan O’Callaghan admits to abusing painkillers in 2011 after his career with the Kansas City Chiefs ended due to an injury. O’Callaghan explained that taking opioids not only masked his physical pain, but it helped mask the insecurities he had about revealing his sexuality. The combination of these struggles led to him contemplating suicide once his career in the NFL came to an end. Fortunately, he sought help through therapy and was able to identify and understand the causes and conditions behind his opioid abuse. 

Terry Tautolo

Terry Tautolo, who won the 1981 Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, experienced homelessness and addiction after the end of his career. Tautolo describes how strongly drug addiction dominated his world as he used methamphetamine every day. He doesn’t blame the NFL for his struggle with substance abuse, despite multiple concussions, but his experience rather proves that nobody is immune to suffering from addiction. He is now actively giving back to his community and is living a fulfilling, sober life.

Randy Grimes

In an interview, Randy Grimes explains how the chaos of his painkiller and benzodiazepine addiction took off after his retirement from playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Grimes no longer had the team doctor, trainer, and teammates to enable him, so he began doctor shopping and ended up creating a lot of chaos for him and his wife. When he sought out treatment for his addiction, he began to heal. Grimes stresses the importance of helping others and speaking out about the disease of addiction in order to break the stigma around it.

Treatment for athletes with substance use disorder

The experiences of these athletes proves that recovery from drug addiction in athletes is possible, despite the struggles that one may face. Since 53% of individuals suffering from addiction also have an underlying mental illness, dual-diagnosis therapy is an effective treatment in providing help to people with co-occurring disorders. This form of therapy can allow a person to be properly diagnosed and also to be given the appropriate medication to treat both their mental illness and substance use disorder. 

Finding a support group to talk to and share experiences with is beneficial in recovery from substance abuse. Support groups offer a safe place for individuals to freely discuss their experiences and struggles with others, so that no person has to feel alone in their journey to sobriety. Not only do these groups show compassion and love to one another, but it gives individuals an opportunity to help another person who is suffering. Many retired athletes may feel as though they have lost their purpose because they are no longer in the spotlight, but having the privilege of helping another person gives individuals a sense of purpose and strength. 

In addition to treatment and a support group, as Grimes explained, it is absolutely essential to speak out about the truth regarding the opioid epidemic that is plaguing not only the lives of professional athletes, but the nation as a whole. By breaking the stigma of addiction, individuals may be more likely to seek help when they desperately need it. With more and more individuals shedding light on this disease, people who are suffering in silence may be more inclined to reach out to others who have overcome addiction.

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