Inside NFL Players' & Retirees' Rising Use Of Prescription Opioids

By Lindsey Weedston 02/11/19

“If I didn’t play in the NFL, I know I wouldn’t have been in this situation,” said one former offensive tackle who battled a painkiller addiction.

an NFL player who uses prescription opioids after games to manage pain.

NFL players and retirees have been misusing opioid painkillers at a much higher rate than the general population, according to a report recently published in The New York Times.

The problem has become worse in recent years as football players have become physically larger and their prescribed opioids have had to be more potent in order to be effective.

Injuries and subsequent surgeries leave professional football players in a lot of pain. Combined with the pressure to get back on the field as soon as possible, these athletes regularly turn to high potency painkillers.

In recent years, these have very often been powerful and addictive opioids like OxyContin. Team doctors have been only too willing to prescribe these drugs, according to players.

“Earl Campbell, a former All-Pro running back in the NFL, said the first painkillers he took came in a small brown packet that a trainer gave him on the team plane,” The New York Times reports. Others talked about bowls of over-the-counter painkillers in locker rooms and taking a “handful” of Percocet.

This pill-popping behavior has turned into full-blown addictions for an alarming number of retired NFL players. Aaron Gibson, a former offensive tackle for multiple NFL teams, thought he would stop taking pills after he retired. Instead, he ended up taking as many as 200 pills every day before he finally faced his problem. “If I didn’t play in the NFL, I know I wouldn’t have been in this situation,” he said.

A 2018 study found that 26.2% of surveyed former NFL players said they had used prescription opioids within the past 30 days, and half of those men admitted to misusing them.

Another study from 2011 found that 7% of retired players were misusing painkillers, which was more than four times the national rate. A total of 71% of players admitted to misusing drugs at some point during their NFL career. 

In comparison, a survey done by the World Health Organization found that 42.4% of all individuals in the U.S. had used cannabis—the most commonly used illicit substance—at any point in their lives. Meanwhile, a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that about 20% of people have misused a prescription drug in their lifetimes.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called this issue a “huge priority” after he was asked about it in a pre-Super Bowl press conference. He claimed that NFL leadership is consulting with pain management experts and is seeking recommendations, but didn’t go into specifics.

Failure to act on the problem, however, has resulted in multiple lawsuits brought by players with chronic pain and addiction disorders as well as federal investigations against the league. The NFL has already come under fire for failing to properly support players who have suffered multiple concussions.

“We don’t want to change the sport,” said former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon in an interview about the advocacy group Players Against Concussions. “What made the game great is the violence—but we want to get these guys properly treated after the violence. That’s the problem—they don’t take care of the guys when they’re finished.”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: