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How Widespread is Drug Abuse in Professional Sports Today?

football player catching a football

How Widespread is Drug Abuse in Professional Sports Today?

What contributes to the widespread drug abuse in professional sports today?  As a society, we put players of our favorite sports on pedestals, enshrine them alongside family members on our walls via posters and news clippings of historic games. An injury to them is an injury to us and, as fans, they are held in the highest regard for their athletic prowess. But just like anyone else, athletes still face many of the same temptations, struggles, and life issues that lead people to drug use and sometimes drug abuse.

Understanding Drug Abuse in Professional Sports

Drug abuse is defined by the University of Maryland Medical Center as:

“a disorder that is characterized by a destructive pattern of using a substance that leads to significant problems or distress.”

There are no specific symptoms or pathways leading to drug abuse. Sometimes it is due to a person’s physical addiction to a drug, causing their brain to alter their reactions to certain stimuli which can lead to a pattern of drug use, leading to drug abuse. Other times abusing a drug stems from outside pressures that tend to wear people down, causing them to act irrationally and seek a release from life’s difficulties.

With regards to athletes, both of these types of pathways are viable courses to drug abuse. Being in the public limelight can cause huge amounts of stress on an athlete, causing them to seek something to ease their public burden. Athletes are also more likely to sustain injuries that can linger in their professional lives. Painkillers, for example, are often abused once an athlete recovers from an injury but fails to quit using the prescription drugs prescribed to them by a physician.

Prevalence of Drug Abuse Among Athletes

Drug abuse in professional sports is everywhere. From painkillers being abused after a sidelining injury, to “doping” with anabolic steroids or human growth hormone (HGH) in order to gain a competitive advantage over opponents, professional sports are riddled with examples of each. The two professional sports with the most headline-grabbing instances of drug abuse and doping reside within Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL).

In MLB, the doping allegations were so rampant at the turn of the century that there was a Congressional hearing about the matter in 2005. At the hearing, six of the sports’ biggest names, including sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, testified in front of Congress. The denials by players and refusals to answer direct questions about steroids and doping were clear signs of the rampant use of steroids by professional baseball players.

In the NFL, a study published by Washington University’s School of Medicine, laid down a sobering set of statistics about players and former players:

– Fifty-two percent of the former NFL players claimed they used painkillers during their careers.71 percent of that 52 percent said they abused the painkillers, and 15 percent of the abusers acknowledged abusing the painkillers in the the past month.

– Those who abused painkillers during their career were three times more likely to abuse them today than those who used the pills while playing.

– Sixty-three percent of the retired players who used prescription painkillers while playing received the medications from a non-medical source, such as a coach, trainer, or teammate.

These numbers show how widespread the use of painkillers are among NFL players seeking to deal with the pain of playing such a rough sport. And this is only one category of drugs being abused; the study did not question former players on their use/abuse of other drugs, such as alcohol and amphetamines like the prescription ADHD medication Adderall (which has become a sort of “drug of choice” among athletes seeking to stay sharp on the field, per a report published by NFL.com).

What is Being Done About It?

Since the turn of the 21st century, the leagues and associations in professional sports have begun cracking down on drug abuse and doping. The MLB has suspended dozens of players for their roles in what is now known as the infamous Steroid Era in baseball (namely the early 1990s through the beginning of the 2000s). Also, in 2013, MLB announced that it would begin testing specifically for HGH, another drug abused by baseball players for performance-enhancement purposes.

Along with the MLB, the NBA, NHL, and NFL have all had relatively recent collective bargaining agreements with their respective players associations. These agreements have all carried stricter regulations on drug testing and the drugs being tested for, as well as redefined the punishments players receive for failing the drug tests. Major League Baseball, for example, has listed the concrete series of consequences for when a player tests positive for steroids:

– first positive test for steroids results in a 50-game suspension
– second positive test results in a season-long suspension
– third positive test results in a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball

The people we put on such a high plane of existence are really no different than everybody else when it comes to drug abuse. In fact, the argument can be made that being a professional athlete increases your chances of abusing drugs. Nine percent of Major League Baseball players are exempt from being tested for Adderall. That is double the national average of adults with ADHD of 4 percent. Former NFL players admitted to abusing painkillers at a rate of nearly 37 percent while they were still playing football.

Enjoy your favorite athletes’ amazing athletic abilities, but don’t forget that they are just as susceptible to the temptations of drug abuse as anyone.

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