ESPN study finds misuse of prescription drugs by retired players

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

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 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.

28 responses to “ESPN study finds misuse of prescription drugs by retired players

  1. The whole world is over medicated, kids are being labeled as having A.D.D. left and right.

    Just what they want, zombies walking around everywhere.

    Don’t forget to get your vaccine, urgh.

    Invest in drug companies asap.

  2. WOW,,,as a person who had a accident and was on pain meds,,,it is very, VERY easy to get hooked…Then it becomes easy with little aches and pains,,,,,I can easily see how an NFL player could get hooked very easily……Folks the new treatment is SOBOXONE ! if you have a pain pill addiction,,,Soboxone will save your life….IF you want to quit !

  3. Just look at some of the players who had careers in the NFL …a guy like Earl Campbell for instance.He has a hard time walking the last time I saw him.Its no wonder after all the physical abuse your body takes playing in the NFL,I think being a player in the NFL you should get free health care for life,clearly you are going to need it and with a the revenue brought in by the league this should be a given

  4. @ sjoyner59

    Free health care for life???? Why should they?..They enjoyed all the praise and money…why did’nt most of them plan ahead for these health problems?..If anyone is deserving of FREE health care for life its the men and women in uniform who have LOST those arms and legs etc…defending our freedom to sit at home on most sundays to watch these HIGHLY PAID jocks play a game…..Get real!!

  5. I don’t believe Marino smoked weed before games only because of his tendency to holler at his receivers during games; I think pot smokers are a little calmer than that.

  6. As one of those guys who has been in uniform and experiences significant pain as the result of duty performance, I do think those players deserve some help. In the military, you expect the politicians to do what they say they will do…which is care for those who have been injured on the field of battle in support of their decision-making.

    NFLers aren’t in the military, but these guys get injuries affecting them through the rest of their lives. I applaud this study for showing these effects so players will know what might happen down the road because it’s evident the league will stamp out anything that isn’t “happy-happy, joy-joy”.

  7. Gee do ya think with the NVL-Nat’l Violence league?Bigger, stronger and faster players ramming into each other at full speed? You gotta be crazy to play this game. Sacrifice the body for a chance at being a millionaire. By the way…PFT says 11 days without an NFL player arrest. Domestic violence, Battery with injury(cedric benson), DUI, drug possession with intent to distribute. Some players just do not give a crap about their or other’s well being. Sad.

  8. in a related study…its been determined that the sun is bright

    Did they really need to “research” this to tell us NFL players take painkillers?? I know its a slow week with no games goin on, but WOW!

  9. “NFL players misuse prescription painkillers at a rate four times greater than the general population”

    Who are these “general population”? Does it include new borns? Toddlers? What?

    Where is the study about the “general population” that it is compared to?

    And how “misused” were they? Is using one extra pill, one time as a sleep aid counted the same as taking 20 pills a day?

    How about comparing the athletes to same-age major surgery patients. Both have easy access to a wide variety of pain killers. Then you’ll at least be a little closer to comparing apples to apples.

    What a totally worthless study. Similar to “Prostitutes have three times more sex than the average person.”

  10. i take anything that EPSN does with a grain of salt.Everything they do is to benefit THEM and no one else.They really do not care unless its the Yankees or Red Sox

  11. Some random thoughts about this piece…….

    How nice of Kyle Turley to trash the reputation of Dan Marino, when he openly admits he has no knowledge of this whatsoever. memoto Turley: If you don’t know first hand of the accusations,er “rumors” you are making, how ’bout you shut the hell upand respect players greater than you?

    If anyone is deserving of FREE health care for life its the men and women in uniform who have LOST those arms and legs etc…defending our freedom to sit at home on most sundays to watch these HIGHLY PAID jocks play a game
    Last time I checked,those menand women DID get free health care for life for war-related disabilities ……… it’s called the VA.


  12. robsterny says:

    “Free health care for life???? Why should they?..They enjoyed all the praise and money…why did’nt most of them plan ahead for these health problems?..If anyone is deserving of FREE health care for life its the men and women in uniform who have LOST those arms and legs etc…defending our freedom to sit at home on most sundays to watch these HIGHLY PAID jocks play a game…..Get real!!”

    Have you seen how much health care costs in the US? A couple of surgeries with hospital stays or a condition requiring extended care will wipe out the savings of even a “highly paid jock”.

    If you live in the US, then count your blessings because a lot of people are in far worse places than you are. But never, ever get sick or injured without a good insurance plan.

  13. Wow PFT and ESPN talking about pain killers and there is no mention of Brett Farve and his addiction battle earlier on in his career.

  14. Taking a thousand Vicodans per month works out to approximately 1.3 pills every hour of every day …

    Maybe a 16 game season is enough …

  15. Mashoaf I agree fully, thats the first thing I thought of, why is this suppose to be a surprise when they talk about Brett Favre having an addiction, then with the Chargers and Saints having issues with giving them out.

    Its really no suprise. Like the NFC Wild Card game when Desean Jackson got hurt, they “fixed” it up and threw him back out there.
    I was waiting to hear on Monday that they had amputated it.

  16. The two physicians quoted hit the nail on the head.

    Comparing NFL retirees to the general population is misguided. Misuse is too vague a term.

    Is the journal it is published in peer reviewed?

  17. @ Mashoaf

    Your right. They’ll do anything to keep Favre from getting thrown under the bus. Its a joke

  18. pain killers are awesome! Take them when you have the flu! You will be feeling great not feeling sick at all! It works a trillion times better than any cold meds around!

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