The recent tragedy of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher is one more in a pathology of incidents involving painkiller-related catastrophe in the NFL. Belcher committed suicide shortly after shooting his girlfriend and the mother of his child, Kassandra Perkins. Following the tragedy, a friend disclosed that Belcher used painkillers and alcohol while battling “debilitating” career-related head trauma. Painkiller addiction among professional athletes, specifically football players, is often an unfortunate reality for those who make their living by pushing their bodies to the breaking point. Very often, careers are extended, whether it’s by a season or more, through the power of prescription drugs.
Unfortunately, prolonging one’s career often means the development of addiction and a steep decline in quality of life either during or after their playing time. The problem has plagued the NFL for decades, an organization who, itself, has bared some culpability in the problem. A 2011 study from Washington University in St. Louis revealed that retired NFL players are four times more likely to misuse prescription opioids. The testimony of players like former New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley paints an illuminating and alarming picture of just how easy these powerful drugs are to procure within the organization. Turley claimed that players numb their long-term pain with prescriptions out of pressure to perform on the field.
NFL painkiller abuse has also been perpetuated by doctors who have gotten rich off of professional athletes’ dependency, including one who Turley reports once offered to sell him 10,000 Vicodin at $3.00 per pill. However, despite the apparent compliance within the medical profession, the aforementioned study revealed that less than 40% of NFL players received their prescriptions exclusively from a doctor. Most have established private connections through dealers or even get them from teammates. Each season we’re hearing about more and more high-profile cases involving current and retired NFL athletes carrying enormous amounts of prescriptions. It has been suggested that Belcher was using painkillers to treat career injuries and suffered short-term memory loss.
Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches spokesman, Randy Grimes, knows all too well the dangers of prescription drugs in the NFL. The former Tamp Bay Buccaneer-turned treatment advocate almost lost everything to a post-career addiction that had him taking up to six hundred pills per month. Although measures are underway to improve the quality of medical care within the NFL, former players like Grimes and Turley (who still admits to using prescriptions) underscore a need for further reform of both medical and disciplinary guidelines regarding the use of prescription painkillers.