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Return-To-Play Culture Causing Drug Addiction in Sports

Mike Richards, former captain of the Philadelphia Flyers and more recently with the Los Angeles Kings, had his contract voided last week because he had allegedly used illegal means to get OxyContin. His $69 million contract was for 12 years; he had fulfilled 5. I hate to see another athlete bite the dust because of drugs – but whose fault is it, really?

Actually, the truth is more likely that Richard’s contract was voided because he was caught – not because of the drugs themselves. There are literally hundreds of pro athletes taking prescription painkillers and getting them anywhere they can, legally or illegally. But that’s another story.

Who is to blame for Mike Richard’s drug problem?

While it’s true that most people don’t have anyone other than themselves to blame for whatever condition their life is in, there are mitigating factors in almost everyone’s story. And even more so with athletes.

According to columnist Sam Donnellon, the villain is the return-to-play culture – regardless of injury or illness, you’re back on the ice. Or the field, the court, in the ring, whatever.

And I couldn’t agree with Donnellon more.

Donnellon points out that a player who doesn’t go back on the ice is a serious liability. That player places the job of everyone concerned at risk – from team doctors to coaches, managers and even other players.

Of course, it’s all about money. Money is not the root of all evil, but it sure puts the pressure on! And, these days, the stakes are very high.

But it seems that humanity has once again taken a back seat to the almighty dollar.

Last year 8 players sued the NFL, accusing the league of illegally obtaining painkillers, anti-inflammatories and sleeping pills and giving them to players who didn’t even have a prescription.

In the end, over 500 other NFL retirees joined in the lawsuit. Some of the incidents go back several decades.

And that’s not the first suit by a long shot. A year earlier the family of Derek Boogaard, an NFL player who died from an overdose, brought suit against the NFL accusing NFL doctors and dentists of giving Derek more than 1,000 pills during just one season.

But addiction, and possibly death, isn’t the only way the leagues endanger players: According to a New York Times article about the NFL retirees’ suit, the league ordered drugs under the name of individual players When Keith Van Horne (then of the Chicago Bears) got a prescription for Percodan from a non-NFL-affiliated doctor, he got into serious trouble with trainer Fred Caito. Because of the NFL’s ordering habits, the DEA records showed that hundreds of painkillers had already been ordered in Van Horne’s name. And Van Horne didn’t even need them. That put Van Horne in a really bad position.

Mike Richards is yet another victim. A different league, a different sport, but the same problem. We don’t know all the details yet – they’ll come out over the next month or two, I’m sure – but Richards had the reputation of conforming to the return-to-play culture. Not that he had a reputation with drugs, but he pretty much kept playing no matter what, and that amounts to the same thing.

So many people want to be pro athletes that it’s easy to find someone to replace a current player – although only a fraction of the wannabes would have the necessary talent. If you want to keep your job, it’s almost impossible to say no to the drugs.

Where the rubber meets the road, there are really only two options.

Either the law cracks down on the leagues and teams, or the players just say no.

Maybe both will happen, but since there are so many ways to circumvent the law, I’m hoping the solution will be the latter.

Not only will ALL the athletes saying no boost their self-esteem, saying no will also save many lives – both literally and figuratively – and maybe athletes can get back to being what they used to be: Our Heroes.

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