At a time when ESPN reportedly is preparing to pay the NFL nearly $2 billion per year for the privilege of televising Monday Night Football, the network has released the results of a study that could create far more consternation at 280 Park Avenue than Playmakers ever did.
A study commissioned by ESPN and partially funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (ESPN apparently couldn’t afford to pay for the whole thing, what with nearly $2 billion per year earmarked for televising NFL games) has determined that former NFL players misuse prescription painkillers at a rate four times greater than the general population.
The “study” sounds official and scientific (especially since the word “scientific” is used repeatedly when the study is mentioned on television), but it essentially consisted of phone surveys to the men, who retired between 1979 and 2006.
We realize that phone surveys technically can constitute a “scientific” study, but the word “scientific” suggests something more detailed and inherently reliable than the extremely low-tech and non-scientific process of calling guys on the phone and asking them questions.
The press release from ESPN trumpeting the study contains various quotes that highlight and validate the findings.
“I was taking about 1,000 Vicodins a month,” former Dolphins tight end Dan Johnson said. “People go ‘That’s impossible. That’s crazy.’ No, it’s exactly what I was taking. I mean, believe me, I’d love to be off medications. That’s my worry everyday, to make sure I have medication.”
“This is the most frightening epidemic I’ve seen probably since the methamphetamine epidemic in the beginning of the early ’90s,” said Dr. Alex Stalcup, who runs a facility that has treated two dozen current or former NFL players for prescription painkiller abuse (and who, let’s face it, would love to treat even more of them).
“Never, ever would I have thought one of these days I [would] be taking over 100 pills a day and spending over $1,000 a week on painkillers,” said former Eagles defensive tackle Sam Rayburn. “I think if I would have given it another two or three months it probably would have killed me.”
And, of course, any story involving former players wouldn’t be complete without a quote from Kyle Turley, whose colorful nature and thin-to-nonexistent brain-to-mouth filter has resulted most recently in the mongering of a rumor that Dan Marino smoked pot before games. “I know guys that have bought thousands of pills,” Turley said. “Tons of guys would take Vicodin before a game.”
Though the press release omitted the league’s response to the study, a portion of it has been tacked onto the end of the Dan Johnson interview currently airing on SportsCenter, and the full response is contained in one of the various stories regarding the study that have been posted at ESPN.com.
Dr. Lawrence S. Brown, the NFL’s medical adviser for substances of abuse, explained that “[i]t is scientifically flawed to compare the general population with athletes, active or retired.” Dr. Brown said that the increased exposure to painkilling medications during the playing career would make the players more susceptible to the misuse of painkillers, making the comparison of misuse by former players to the general population an “apples to oranges” proposition.
“In the NFL and all sports, part of employment includes relief of pain because of the prevalence of injury,” Dr. Brown said. “If you don’t have the exposure, you’re less likely to misuse.”
Omitted from the made-for-TV and/or intended-to-attract-attention mentions of the study but subsumed within the extensive writing on the subject at ESPN.com is a glaring caveat from a the editor-in-chief of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the journal in which the results of the study were officially published. Dr. Eric Strain, the director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Center for Substance Abuse Treatment and Research, cautions that “misuse” is a very broad term.
“Misuse could be somebody who’s misused on a very small number of occasions outside of a medical prescription,” Dr. Strain said. “I think it’s critically important to keep that in mind as this study is being considered.”
What’s also critically important to keep in mind is that pain remains one of the obvious risks that every man who laces up cleats and straps on a helmet accepts freely, willingly, and in plenty of cases eagerly. It hurts to play football. Overcoming pain and finding ways to perform despite it remain hallmarks of toughness and grit, applauded by those who play and follow the sport.
Does it surprise anyone to learn that football players exposed to painkilling medications while playing football eventually may find themselves habitually using them? In New Orleans, linebackers coach Joe Vitt allegedly was caught on camera in 2009 swiping pain pills from the in-house narcotics candy jar, even though his own football career ended at the college level. Hell, if smoking cigarettes helped football players deal with pain, every Hall of Fame banquet would look like an all-hands meeting at Sterling Cooper.
In our view, the ESPN study serves only to reinforce the reality that the possibility of developing a dependence on pain medication is included among the various risks that players assume — and for which they are compensated — during their time in the league. At the risk of sounding too much like Ed Rendell, we are indeed a nation of risk-takers. Men who choose to assume the risk of concussions and broken bones and ruptured spleens and torn ligaments and every other injury along with the reality that an addiction to the medications used to treat those injuries have every right to do so. The pursuit of happiness carries with it no guarantee that happiness will be achieved. It often entails risk, and very few of the men currently playing in the NFL will decide to trade in their shoulder pads for a calculator after watching Sunday’s Outside the Lines.
If the ESPN study helps more players become sensitive to the risks and to take steps to avoid addiction, that makes the effort beneficial and useful. It also would be beneficial and useful if the on-air discussion of the study focused more on that aspect of the problem and less on creating the impression that ESPN has taken great pains to discover the existence of a problem that anyone who has been paying attention to the game has known about for years.