Pain is the inescapable price of an NFL career, and a drug problem can easily become one, too. Retired NFL players misuse opioids at a rate more than four times that of their peers, according to a 2010 study of 644 league veterans by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Even upon retirement, 15 percent of those who misused opioids during their careers continued to misuse, according to the study, even though they were no longer playing.
“People spend so much time talking about HGH, steroids, and I think these are the real performance enhancers,” Fujita said.
NFL doctors say they face a constant challenge in identifying players who legitimately need prescription painkillers, as opposed to those who want pain relief without a documentable injury. Anthony Casolaro, the Redskins’ team physician, said before he administers any pregame medication, he makes sure the player appeared on the week’s injury report and received treatment for a specific ailment.
But the Washington University School of Medicine study reflected the prevalence of prescription drug use and abuse in the league: 52 percent of respondents said they used opioids during their career. Of those, 71 percent reported “misuse” of them.
“Part of playing in the NFL is dealing with pain. People get hurt, people take painkillers, that’s just part of the game,” said Frank Mattiace, a former NFL player who’s now an addiction counselor and the executive director of the New Jersey-based New Pathway Counseling Services. “So you’re dealing with a double-edged sword. It’s such an ingrained part of their mentality.”
In a sport with short career spans and few guaranteed contracts, playing through pain is an understood job requirement. In The Post’s survey of former players, nearly nine in 10 reported playing games while hurt. Fifty-six percent said they did this “frequently.” Almost half of those who played through pain (49 percent) said they wished they had done so “less often,” and an overwhelming number — 68 percent — said they did not feel like they had a choice as to whether to play hurt.
With pain management such a constant challenge in NFL training rooms, football teams buy drugs in bulk. William Barr, the director of neuropsychology at the New York University School of Medicine, served as a concussion consultant for the New York Jets from 1995 to 2004. He recalls experiencing a headache and requesting aspirin from team trainers.
“They said, ‘Go over there and it will deal with your headache,’ ” Barr said. “There was a huge candy jar of Toradol.”
Rampant use of Toradol
The Food and Drug Administration in 1989 approved a new NSAID called ketorolac, which hit the market as Toradol. The FDA now lists more than 25 makers of it.
Toradol’s fast-acting properties can be alluring in a business where job security is directly tied to health and a player’s ability to perform. An intramuscular injection can have onset within 10 minutes, peaking within an hour and showing a half-life of 61
2 hours, according to studies.