Wednesday, August 11, 2010 Column on Painkiller Abuse in the NFL

I have the Viewpoint Column today on and it's an extensive piece on painkiller abuse in the NFL. Here is an excerpt:

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But for the vast majority of players, unless there is reasonable cause, the collective bargaining agreement mandates no testing for the likes of cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, opiates (morphine and codeine) and phencyclidine (PCP) until April. Over-the-counter pain medicines, such as Tylenol or Aleve, are not tested, nor are prescription pain medicines such as Vicodin, Demerol, Percocet or OxyContin.

By contrast, testing for steroids and illegal performance enhancers occurs throughout the year.

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Given that NFL players are tested for substances of abuse only during the offseason and for steroids throughout the year, while the other two "physical" pro leagues -- the NBA and NHL -- test for substances of abuse throughout their seasons, a cynic might infer that the NFL and NFLPA are more worried about players using steroids to get bigger and stronger than those same players using illegal drugs for treating pain or getting high.

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. . . As NFL players become bigger and stronger, and as their hits and tackles become harder and more injurious, do the NFLPA and the league have an increased responsibility to monitor pain relief? And how can the two determine if players are using painkillers to treat pain or merely to get high?

These won't be easy questions to answer in a sport that requires physical collisions at high speeds and a league that cannot -- and should not -- monitor the lives of its players 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But they are important to ask because pain is a sensory response to bodily damage. If pain is muted, a person may not appreciate the damage inflicted. If that person endures the violence of NFL games week after week, not adequately comprehending bodily damage could cause serious and long-term health problems. These questions are also important to ask because NFL player contracts usually contain more non-guaranteed money than guaranteed, and NFL players are expected to "be tough" and "play hurt." One could easily imagine them feeling pressured to use whatever it takes to stay on the field.

Some in the medical community believe that a rise in painkiller abuse among NFL players could prove uniquely telling. Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a noted expert on the intersection between sports, medicine and ethics, believes there is a potential and understudied link between painkillers and other controversial injury issues for the NFL, mainly concussions. "Painkillers are one kind of a marker of a level of injury suffered by NFL players," said Caplan. "Their level of use can indicate the toll of the game on players."

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To read the rest, click here.