The public’s perception of alcoholism in the National Football League is a somewhat unfair one. Most players are law-abiding men who live clean lives and contribute to their communities. Compared to their counterparts in the general population, NFL players are far better-behaved. Players with alcohol-related legal problems, because they’re in the limelight, tend to tarnish the image of the league as a whole. Still, abuse by even a few is a serious concern to league officials, the players’ union and their fans.
Athletes in the NFL face heightened danger of becoming victims to alcoholism. Young, inexperienced players are suddenly earning a great deal of money as employees of a multibillion dollar organization. The pressure to perform well on the field, please fans and withstand the glare of the media is a potentially volatile circumstance. While most adjust well, NFL players are arrested for driving under the influence around 13-14 times per year. Males of the average player’s age are in the riskiest demographic for alcohol-related car crashes. Alcohol has been a factor in NFL-associated highway fatalities, domestic battles, violence, sexual crimes, homicides and suicides. Alcoholism or alcohol abuse is by far the biggest criminal concern of the NFL and it has overshadowed many a team’s otherwise outstanding season.
One potential risk that causes a player to succumb to alcoholism is injury. Using alcohol as self-medication for pain—especially mixed with pain killers—is a dangerous but relatively common practice. A number of players and former players who were sober upon entering the league developed alcoholism after they were injured.
Fortunately, the league has stringent policies in place to prevent and provide assistance with alcohol abuse. There are special procedures for players who have abused alcohol in the past, still bearing their alcoholism from high school, college or other NFL teams. If they test positively for alcohol upon signing with the team, they are automatically mandated to enter the substance abuse rehab program; the same is true for men with incidences of DUI. While all players are tested during the pre-season, men with histories of addiction must test more often.
The league’s intervention program is set up in stages and by regions. Urine testing is under the supervision of a regional medical director. When an athlete has failed a test, the head doctor of his own team is notified and the player enters the first stage of alcoholism treatment. The testing director and a regional psychiatrist assemble a team of counselors, medical doctors, psychologists and social workers for the NFL player. Following evaluation, a recovery plan is recommended for the player’s particular needs. Each NFL team designates one doctor who focuses specifically on substance abuse problems, so the player is closely monitored during practice, at meetings and before games. Players may also self-refer.
The rehabilitation process works very much the same way it does outside of football. Users have individual sessions with licensed therapists who specialize in alcoholism. They also attend group sessions, family counseling and 12-step programs. If the alcoholism is severe, some enter short- or long-term substance abuse facilities. Players who violate the program’s strict guidelines are fined or suspended from games. But NFL players have a built-in advantage for high rates of recovery and less likelihood of relapse—even sober, football players are under the constant scrutiny of medical personnel.
The league offers many avenues to wellness, even a hotline in operation around-the-clock, 365 days a year. The NFL has become especially attentive to former players, overseeing their long-term recovery and helping them adjust to retirement. Just as in “civilian” life, recovery is a realistic goal for addicted athletes who receive proper care.