Athlete or Addict?
I recently stumbled across a heart wrenching Sport’s Illustrated article that detailed the downward spiral many young athletes take into addiction. The article itself touched briefly on statistics about athletes and addiction, as well as how drug cartels are targeting athletes, but more compelling were the stories of numerous student athletes derailed by painkiller and heroin abuse.
Those “profiled” include Roman Montana, Patrick Trevor, Amber Masters, and others. These were some incredibly talented athletes with the potential to go pro.
Roman was a promising baseball, basketball, and MMA star from Albuquerque, NM. He became addicted to painkillers after being injured in 2008. He died from a heroin overdose in 2012.
Patrick was a star New Jersey high school lacrosse player. After his thumb was shattered in 2009, he became dependent on painkillers. After moving on to heroin, he got sober in 2012.
Amber was a star California soccer player. After following a similar trajectory as Roman and Patrick, she became hooked on heroin. Her addiction grew to the point that she began selling heroin and introduced her younger brother to the drug. He died of an overdose in 2012.
Today, Amber is clean and sober. Her brother’s death was a wake up call that she needed to turn her life around. She did, but not everyone is so lucky.
Roman Montana’s overdose death in 2012 was just one of a growing number of student athlete deaths. In fact, since 2011, at least eight athletes in the Albuquerque area have died of a heroin or prescription painkiller overdose.
There’s clearly something very wrong here. What’s going on? Why are so many athletes turning into addicts? Perhaps it has something to do with Mexican cartels and how they’re targeting student athletes.
Cartels Targeting Student Athletes
One of the most surprising elements of the Sport’s Illustrated article was their suggestion that sophisticated Mexican cartels are actively pursuing young athletes.
Jack Riley, the DEA’s Chief of Operations, recognized this pattern around ten years ago. He noticed cartels began “marketing” heroin to those with a high likelihood of abusing prescription drugs.
No specific population is more susceptible to receiving prescriptions for powerful opioids, and abusing those prescriptions, than athletes. In fact, a seven-month Sport’s Illustrated investigation uncovered rampant prescription opioid and heroin abuse in almost all sports.
This investigation concluded that opioid overdoses have occurred across the country in sports like baseball, basketball, football, golf, gymnastics, hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, volleyball, and wrestling.
Of these overdoses, almost all involving heroin can be traced back to cartel manufactured drugs. Riley himself has seen this firsthand. When asked about the influence of Mexican made heroin, he stated,
“’[The cartels] have developed a strategy, with the help of street gangs, to put heroin in every walk of life. They recognize how vulnerable young athletes are’” (Sport’s Illustrated).
Statistics on Athletes and Addiction
Having examined how heroin is “marketed” to student athletes, what about it’s impact on their lives? We looked at some specific and heartbreaking examples above, but what about national trends?
Things aren’t looking good. According to research from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey, around 11% of senior level high school athletes have used painkillers for nonmedical purposes.
With that many students abusing painkillers, and heroin being aggressively pushed on them by criminal enterprises, it’s no wonder there have been so many overdoses.
Equally alarming is research from Philip Todd Veliz, a scientist from the University of Michigan. He conducted a 2013 study on over 1,400 young athletes. His findings?
Well, he concluded that adolescent males playing sports are two times more likely to be prescribed painkillers and four times more likely to misuse/abuse them than males of the same age who don’t play sports.
Two times more likely to be prescribed painkillers and four times more likely to abuse them? That sounds alarming at best and downright terrifying at worst. Playing sports, something that’s universally touted and pushed on our children, can cause them to be much more likely to abuse drugs? That isn’t right.
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Why are So Many Athletes Turning Into Addicts?
There are more forces at work than drug dealers targeting student athletes. Perhaps another reason so many athletes are turning into addicts has to do with what I’ve dubbed the “culture of play.”
This is the idea that, no matter what, athletes need to be on the field, court, or rink. It doesn’t matter if they’re injured. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick. It doesn’t matter if they’re unable to play in whatever way. They’ll simply take a pill and get back to the game.
This culture of play could be one of the reasons so many athletes are turning to opioid pain pills to get them through injuries. And the line between use, misuse, abuse, and addiction is incredibly thin.
There’s also the idea that doctors simply aren’t informed about the drugs they’re dispensing to young athletes or, if they are, they aren’t properly communicating the potential risks to families. Although this is hard to believe – it’s 2015 and the opioid epidemic is in full swing – it seems to have occurred in at least a few of the cases examined in Sport’s Illustrated.
Take, for example, Patrick’s story. He received a prescription for Roxicodone almost right after his injury. Although his doctor knew a bit about the drug, he even joked that Trevor “got the good stuff,” he did nothing to warn Trevor or his family.
This type of uninformed and negligent prescribing is how we ended up with a countrywide painkiller epidemic to begin with. It’s disheartening to see that, many years later, some doctors still haven’t learned their lesson.
What’s the Solution?
This is where many are left scratching their head, wondering, “huh? There’s a solution?” The good news is that yes, there is hope for the recent tide of adolescent athlete-addicts. The bad news is that it isn’t a quick fix.
The solution to athletes turning into addicts is as complicated as the problem itself. That is – there are doctors overprescribing opioids, while drug cartels and dealers are targeting those receiving prescriptions. The answer is for doctors to cut down on prescribing opioids and for addiction treatment to be readily accessible to those who need it.
The first part, eliminating the over the top prescribing attitude of doctors, is already being implemented. Things like prescription monitoring services are cracking down on “pill mills” and other sources of powerful opioids across the country.
Increasing access to treatment, on the other hand, is a bit harder to implement. Some major steps, like mental health and substance abuse insurance parity, have been made in the past few years, but there’s still a long way to go.
Until then, there are going to be drug dealers targeting those who are at risk for heroin abuse. Young athletes, old athletes, and everyone between will continue to get hooked and overdose. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.
People like Roman Montana, Patrick Trevor, Amber Masters, and the rest of this new generation of addict-athletes are living, and sometimes dying, proof of this.