Addiction in the NFL

Addiction in the NFL

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Addiction in the NFL

A life of bone-crunching tackles that replicate the impact from a small car has left may current and former NFL players in never-ending pain. The toll of a professional football career can be seen on the bodies of many players who struggle to get out of bed in the morning.

Painkillers have become a common form of relief, mostly temporary, for many NFL players. The constant tackles and colliding bodies are only one source of pain players feel. Joints, tendons, and ligaments are under constant stress thanks to many pro footballers being overweight. A person’s body can carry only so much weight be it muscle or fat, and when the body supports too much mass it breaks down over time. Unfortunately, the NFL lifestyle is damaging the long-term futures of its players and addiction to pain numbing medication has been turned to by individuals to alleviate their issues.

Medication to reduce pain is nothing new in the NFL. According to a 2019 New York Times article, former NFL running back Earl Campbell (1978 to 1985) first took painkillers when a trainer from the Houston Oilers gave them to him. Former Tamp Bay Buccaneers center Randy Grimes played 10 seasons in the NFL. By the time of his second season, the pain during the week was unbearable and Grimes began mixing Vicodin and Halcion to get through full-contact practices. Grimes went on to recover from his painkiller addiction but not without the help of rehab. At his painkiller addiction peak, Grimes took up to 45 pills per day. He is lucky to still be alive.

It is difficult to know just how many NFL players use or are addicted to painkillers. Many players that pop pills do so to keep their jobs in the league. A player may justify their addiction as it allows them to practice and play to keep the paychecks rolling in. However, it isn’t just the players who are guilty of popping painkillers to keep their jobs. As Campbell’s story shows, NFL team doctors and trainers have been guilty of supplying addictive painkillers to players for decades.

The league has faced class action lawsuits in the past over allegations of teams supplying players with medication to get them back on the field. With the news of concussions and CTE as a black eye on the NFL and allegedly covering up medical knowledge of head injuries, it seems completely legitimate that the league’s teams risked their players’ health to get them onto the gridiron.

Players that have justified taking painkillers during their careers find it to be a difficult addiction to end after retirement. Painkillers are widely available from doctors and trainers creating a stream of medication to fuel addiction. Yet, once their careers finish, the stream dries up and ex-players find themselves in residential rehab.

Painkiller misuse creates a destructive addiction to opioids. Ex-NFL players spend their lives going down a spiral of addiction as they attempt to remedy the pain they now live with. Pills enable players to play through the pain barrier, and as Campbell told the New York Times, he never used them before entering the NFL.

As players have got bigger, so has the pain. In response, pain medication is now far stronger than ever before and more addictive. The drugs are now also far more dangerous and can take a person’s financial stability – and life – in no time.

Addiction in the NFL is rampant and as Grimes’ story showed, a player doesn’t have to have had a serious injury to need painkillers. They may simply be used to cope with the contact and collisions. Unless something is done, the NFL is likely to see more players addicted to pain medication in the future.

References for Addiction in the NFL

1. Manchikanti L, Singh A. Therapeutic opioids: a ten-year perspective on the complexities and complications of the escalating use, abuse, and nonmedical use of opioids. Pain Physician. 2008;11(2 suppl):S63–S88 [PubMed] []

2. Cicero TJ, Ellis MS, Harney J. Shifting patterns of prescription opioid and heroin misuse in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2015;373(18):1789–1790 [PubMed] []

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Addiction in the NFL
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Addiction in the NFL
It is difficult to know just how many NFL players use or are addicted to painkillers. Many players that pop pills do so to keep their jobs in the league. A player may justify their addiction as it allows them to practice and play to keep the paychecks rolling in.
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