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Updated on April 22, 2022

Athletes and Drug Addiction

Why is Substance Abuse Common Among Athletes?

There are many reasons why substance abuse is so common among athletes. 

Many face intense pressure to perform. Others are young and more likely to experiment with substances as they explore their boundaries. Additionally, some sports cultures contribute to substance abuse. 

Other reasons substance abuse is common among athletes include:

Injuries 

Injuries are common in sports, and they can be very painful. Some athletes turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the pain.

Life on the Road

Athletes often travel a lot. They spend a lot of time away from their homes, friends, and family. For some, this leads to loneliness, so they turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

While substance abuse is a serious problem among athletes, it is not insurmountable. With the right prevention strategies, athletes can avoid substance abuse and maintain healthy, successful careers.

While there are many factors that can contribute to substance abuse among athletes, there are also several ways to prevent it. Education is one key preventative method, as athletes who are aware of the risks associated with substance abuse are less likely to engage in it. 

Additionally, policies and procedures that discourage substance abuse, such as drug testing, can also be effective in preventing athletes from using drugs. 

Creating a supportive environment within sports teams and organizations can help athletes feel more connected and less likely to turn to substances.

Student Athletes and Substance Abuse

Many of the same pressures that drive professional athletes to alcohol and drug use also exist for student athletes.

Like professional athletes, student athletes may abuse drugs and alcohol to:

  • Cope with the pressure they feel to succeed
  • Improve their performance
  • Cope with the disappointment of not performing up to their standards

Additionally, student athletes might abuse drugs and alcohol because they are easily accessible. 

Party culture is common on college campuses. In some cases, student athlete exposure to drugs and alcohol is more common than it is with other students. This is due in part to their campus notoriety.

Finally, the culture surrounding college sports can be very competitive. 

Student athletes often feel pressure to win at all costs, especially when their performance is tied to scholarships and future career opportunities. This pressure can lead them to abuse drugs and alcohol to gain an edge over their opponents.

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What Are Some Popular Substances Athletes Abuse?

Athletes often turn to banned substances to improve their performance. Some of the most popular substances athletes abuse include:

Performance-Enhancing Drugs

There are several performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) athletes use to improve their athletic ability. 

For instance:

  • Anabolic steroids: Synthetic hormones that can help athletes build muscle mass and strength. However, they can also have serious side effects, including liver damage, high blood pressure, and heart problems.
  • HGH: Hormone that helps regulate growth and development. Some athletes use HGH in an attempt to improve their athletic performance, but it can cause joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and enlarged breasts in men.
  • Stimulants: Increase alertness and energy levels. They can improve athletic performance, but they can also cause insomnia, anxiety, and heart palpitations.

Alcohol

There are many reasons why athletes may abuse alcohol. Some may turn to alcohol to cope with the pressure of competition, while others may use it as a way to celebrate successes. And others abuse alcohol simply because they enjoy the feeling of intoxication.

In the U.S., alcohol is legal for people over 21 years old, and it’s one of the most easily accessible drugs available. 

Cannabis

Cannabis is a psychoactive drug that can improve focus and concentration. However, it can also impair coordination and reaction time. Some use it to relax and deal with the pressure and/or pain of their athletic career.

Athletes Who Have Struggled With Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

No athlete should feel shame or embarrassment if they struggle with addiction. Some of the world’s most accomplished athletes have faced similar challenges. 

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps is a former American Olympic swimmer. As of 2016, he holds a variety of Olympic swimming records in categories including the men's 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly, and 400-meter individual medley.

In 2014, Michael Phelps was arrested for DUI after a night of partying. Phelps has also admitted to using marijuana and other drugs in the past. Phelps has said that he is now sober and has not used drugs in over a year.

Lawrence Taylor

Lawrence Taylor is a former National Football League (NFL) linebacker. His achievements include winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year during his first year in the league. Taylor played in two Super Bowls and was selected ten times for the NFL Pro Bowl.

Taylor developed an addiction to cocaine during his NFL career. The public learned of his addiction after Taylor failed a drug test in 1987. Following another drug test failure the following year, Taylor sought professional drug treatment. Unfortunately, his struggles continued and led to several arrests, including a DUI in 2017.

CC Sabathia

Former Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher CC Sabathia played for 19 seasons. Sabathia played on six MLB All Star teams and won the Cy Young Award in 2007. He also won ALCS MVP in 2000 and was a part of the World Series Championship team in 2009.

Sabathia developed an alcohol addiction during his career. He checked into treatment in 2015.

Lamar Odom

Lamar Odom is an American former professional basketball player. He played 14 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA), winning two NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. As a member of the Lakers, he also won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2011.

Lamar Odom's drug problem has been well-documented. The former NBA star has struggled with addiction for years, and it has taken a toll on his life and career.

His drug problem first came to light in 2015, when he was arrested for driving under the influence. He later revealed that he had been struggling with an addiction to crack cocaine. In 2015, Odom was found unconscious in a brothel after a drug overdose. He spent several weeks in a coma.

Despite several stints in rehab, Odom’s struggle continued, and in 2017, he was hospitalized after suffering from an overdose.

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What to Do About Substance Abuse Among Athletes

One of the most important factors in curbing athlete substance abuse is education about the dangers of substance abuse. This should start at a young age and continue throughout an athlete's career. 

It should include information about the risks of using performance-enhancing drugs, as well as the risks of abusing alcohol and other substances. It’s also important to make sure athletes understand mental illness and how their mental health plays a role in addiction.

Another important step is to have strong policies in place that discourage substance abuse. These policies should be clear and concise, and they should be enforced consistently.

Providing support and addiction treatment to athletes who are struggling with substance abuse is also critical. This support can come in the form of:

  • Detox
  • Rehabilitation
  • Therapy
  • Support from family and friends
  • Medication for withdrawal symptoms and ongoing care
  • Treatment for co-occurring mental health issues and disorders
  • Relapse prevention

By providing this support, it’s possible to help athletes overcome their addictions and get back on track.

One of the most important factors in handling athlete substance addiction is recognizing the warning signs. These include:

  • Loss of control
  • Neglecting responsibilities and once-enjoyed activities
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Secretiveness
  • Relationship issues
  • Developing tolerance
  • Family history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Using substances despite negative consequences
  • Withdrawal symptoms
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Resources

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  1. Reardon, Claudia, and Shane Creado. “Drug Abuse in Athletes.” Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, vol. 5 Aug. 2014, pp. 95–10..
  2. Dandoy, C., and R. S. Gereige. “Performance-Enhancing Drugs.” Pediatrics in Review, vol. 33, no. 6, 1 June 2012, pp. 265–272.5. 
  3. Green, Gary A., et al. “NCAA Study of Substance Use and Abuse Habits of College Student-Athletes.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 11, no. 1, Jan. 2001, pp. 51–56. 
  4. Doping and Substance Abuse.” NCAA.org. 
  5. Mind, Body and Sport: Substance Use and Abuse.” NCAA.org. 
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Are Anabolic Steroids Addictive?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, Feb. 2018.

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