The NFL's substance abuse policy is fatally flawed as it currently stands. Today, we are looking at a broken system that is doomed to fail unless significant changes are made. The current system criminalizes drug use without addressing the underlying causes of the league's current drug epidemic. It also fails to enact policies and programs which might help address these causes. In this post, I will address some potential changes which could plausibly end the drug epidemic in the NFL.
Professional players become addicted to drugs such as heroin for a number of reasons. Ultimately, these reasons can be boiled down to three main causes: pain management, stress management, and social factors. While the decision to use substances which violate the league's substance abuse policy is a personal one, often it becomes impossible for a player to give up an addiction without significant assistance. The drug use itself is a choice, but at some point, the player becomes a slave to his own addiction. The league needs to do a better job at both addressing the underlying causes leading to addiction and also at helping players to combat addiction once addicted.
Football is a physical sport. Players experience constant jarring impacts, immense physical stresses, and a large amount of physical pain. In today's league, players are constantly asked to play on short weeks thanks to the advent of Thursday night football as a weekly tradition. The league is sacrificing player safety and health to further its own economic bottom line. Although the Goodell era has been partly defined by attempts to make the game safer for players (especially with concussions), regularly asking players to play on a short week puts extra physical stress on the bodies of players. The league is ok with Thursday night football since it generates extra advertising income. The league's insistence on extending the schedule to Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and some Saturdays shows that the league cares more for advertising revenue than it does for the physical well-being of its players. By allowing players a full week to recover from the previous week's game every week, the league will avoid putting excess physical stress on players (and also potentially helping alleviate chronic pain among players). If the NFL is serious about ending drug use among players, one simple step that can be taken is to end Thursday night football. Keep football on Thanksgiving since it is a longstanding tradition, but do we really need NFL games 3 or 4 days a week, every week? Most Thursday night matchups are lackluster anyway, so let's get rid of this broken concept.
Speaking of physical stress, besides ending short weeks and allowing players ample time to recover physically each week, another step that the league can take is to focus more on pain management for players. Football is a physical sport, and many players deal with physical pain on a daily basis. If the league is able to find improved ways to treat the chronic pain dealt with by many players, then opiates and other illicit drugs will be less attractive to players. Many addicts turn to drugs such as heroin as a way to manage pain. They start with prescription pain killers, try heroin, and their pain disappears. This often leads to a long struggle with addiction, since quitting a drug such as heroin is much easier said than done. Simply suspending a player for heroin use is not an acceptable strategy if the league hopes to end drug use among players. The league needs a program which looks out for the needs of the individual player, as well as remains strong against drug use.
Why do many players continue to use illegal drugs even after being punished by the league? The answer is simple. The league's approach to punishment and treatment is incomplete. Simply slapping a player on the wrist and saying "no you can't do that" does not treat the underlying cause of the addiction. Instead, it puts a band-aid on a bigger problem and makes the casual fan think that the league is being hard on drug use. This keeps the average fan happy, since the average fan will likely simply view the player as an addict rather than a person. Most who have never used drugs wonder why players don't simply quit since they have the world at the feet. I have never and will never use drugs, but quitting the addiction is easier said than done. Drugs, especially opiates, generate physical symptoms that are only alleviated by the use of that drug. An addiction that starts as a way to ease pain turns into an addiction to ease another sort of pain, "dope sickness." When an addict comes down from heroin, the addict experiences body aches that may be worse than the pain that they turned to heroin to treat, nausea, and other physical symptoms. This is why people who seek to quit heroin usually need to turn to methadone clinics or other rehab programs which offer a physiological replacement for the drug as they try to quit, alleviating dope sickness. The league needs to do a better job at helping players quit the habit; don't just suspend a player for drug use, but also put the player into a league mandated drug rehab program.
Of course, rehab programs are hit or miss. Many addicts who are forced into rehab either for legal or employment reasons relapse after leaving the program. Some find ways to beat the system, using other people's urine for drug tests for example. Others simply go through the motions until the treatment is over, and then turn back to their old habits. If the league hopes to beat the drug epidemic while also not losing talented players such as Josh Gordon to addiction, then the league needs to find ways to help a player want to get clean. Simply telling a player that they get to play in the NFL if they can get clean may not be enough to get a player to quit their addictions; professional athletes are constantly in the spotlight and every mistake or poor choice that they make comes with loads of criticism. Of course, many players are able to cope with these stresses without turning to drug use.
However, all players in the NFL would benefit from counseling which helps them cope with the every-day emotional and psychological stresses that come with playing professional football. Having a strong system in place which provides players with emotional and psychological support to help handle the unique stresses that come with playing in the league would be beneficial to all players. Another step that would benefit all players is placing a stronger emphasis on helping players prepare for life after football. Most NFL careers are exceedingly short. Some players find ways to prepare for life after football. Others never transition smoothly from the football field into everyday life. A program which not only helps players transition into life after football but also provides needed emotional and psychological support to players would go a long way to both curbing some of the struggles faced by players after leaving the game and also to helping players with an addiction problem combat their addictions. How can the league build a program that would effectively combat drug use amongst players and also prepares players for life after football?
The most effective program would start at the college level. Many of the legal and drug use issues plaguing today's NFL stem from college football. Any time you have eighteen year old kids thrust into the spotlight and portrayed as heroes with little or no parental guidance on a day-to-day basis (since in many cases these players are playing far from home), there is a risk that individuals will turn to crime. If a young adult is suddenly told that they are God's gift to football, then it is easy for that player to not adequately consider the consequences of illegal actions. Many college football players come from tough, underprivileged neighborhoods. For them, the sport may be the only way that they can pay their way through college. If a player grows up in an environment where drugs and crime are common, then the player may be tempted to turn to that type of lifestyle. Some players have the emotional and mental maturity to act professional and build a career out of football. Others (a small percentage, to be sure) need guidance. At least some of this guidance should come from the college which the player is attending. However, the NFL can help as well.
If the NFL is serious about cleaning up its public image, then I suggest a peer mentoring program starting out at the college level. Assign current or former NFL players with strong positive characters to each college team, and have these individuals work with young college athletes. Such a program will cost some money to implement, but the benefits outweigh the cost in my opinion. This program would require the NFL and the NCAA to work together, but would provide tangible benefits at both levels of football. How do I suggest building such a program? Here's a thought.
Whenever possible, find a retired player who played for the university where he will be stationed. By employing former players from a given university, the program gains the added benefit of someone familiar with the area and program in question. A former player will know at least some of the temptations faced by players at a given university. Is there a strong drug culture on campus or in the surrounding area? The former player assigned as a mentor should be familiar with this culture. Is other crime common in the region? There again, the former player should be (or make themselves) familiar with the risks facing players at a given university. The player should work with student-athletes on a number of levels. First, they should oversee a mentoring process which helps players succeed on the field and in the classroom. Many student-athletes will never play professional football. However, by providing guidance to all college football players at a university, many who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families, this program would provide a strong, tangible benefit to all student-athletes in the university's football program. Second, the mentor should work to identify players who may be at risk of turning to crime or drug use. Risk factors include a family history of drug use and also a player who comes from an area where drug use and crime are extremely common. Not all players at risk of crime will turn to crime. However, players who are at risk should not be allowed to slip through the cracks of the system. If a player who comes from an at-risk background emerges as a strong character individual, then the player (if comfortable with such a role) should be encouraged to become a leader in the locker room. With this system, we are encouraging the college player not only to reject drugs and crime, but also to become high character individuals who are marketable both in the NFL and also in the off-the-field job market. Finally, the player mentor should also help prepare players for life after football. If the league is able to attack drug use and crime at the college level, then perhaps it will be possible to create a drastic decline in drug use and crime within the NFL. Such an outcome would far outweigh the expense of such a program.
Ultimately, if the NFL truly desires to end the drug epidemic facing the league, then it needs to start treating the underlying causes of drug use. I've suggested some strategies, but there are, of course, other potential ways to treat the drug epidemic in the NFL as well. The current epidemic stems, at least partly, from the league treating players as a commodity to sell a product more than as human beings. The league cares about player safety enough to offset lawsuits and bad public opinion. However, at the end of the day, the driving force of the NFL (and all businesses) is revenue generation. If the league hopes to effectively combat drug use, it needs to stop simply criminalizing the habit and instead also work to combat the underlying causes leading to drug use. Only then will we see a decline in drug use in the NFL. I suggest beginning this process at the college level; if the NFL can begin the process by providing mentors to college programs, then it might prove easier to avoid these struggles once players make it to the NFL. One thing is for sure, if the NFL hopes to defeat the drug epidemic, then much more work needs to be done.--Mike B.
Sports give us as the human race something to cheer for and support and give hope to all of us.