Athletes And Addiction: Substance Abuse In Sports?

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Professional athletes make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, but many of them garner fame, success, and admiration from loyal fans. However, the pressure to perform and feelings of overwhelm may lead professional athletes into drug or alcohol addiction. Fortunately, treatment programs are available to help them recover.

Athletes And Addiction: Substance Abuse In Sports?

People who are athletically gifted may go on to pursue a career in professional sports. A sports career holds promise of financial success and, for some, long-lasting fame.

However, heavy training, the pressure to perform, and being in the spotlight doesn’t always come easy. Over time, the competition can become overwhelming, which may push some athletes to use drugs or alcohol.

There are nearly 12,000 professional athletes in the U.S. who play more than 200 sports. Nonetheless, drug and alcohol abuse occurs in all sports and at all levels of competition.

Read more about careers with high rates of addiction.

Rates Of Addiction Among Athletes

Professional athletes make up less than 1% of the U.S. population. Because of the comparatively small figure, few statistics are available about drug addiction and alcohol abuse rates among athletes.

Due to performance pressure, competition, and high stakes, professional athletes face a high risk of drug and/or alcohol abuse compared to the general population.

While some athletes may begin drinking heavily as high school or college students, others turn to illicit drugs or prescription drugs. Most prevention efforts focus on anabolic steroids or performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

The use of drugs or other substances to enhance a person’s athletic performance, such as to increase muscle mass, is known as doping. Anti-doping campaigns, like the World Anti-Doping Agency, work to combat the prevalence of PEDs.

Some of the common performance-enhancement drugs include:

  • agonists
  • androgens
  • beta blockers
  • human growth hormones
  • methods to increase oxygen transport
  • nutritional supplements
  • stimulants

Professional Athletes And Prescription Opioid Abuse

The abuse of prescription opioids is of particular concern with professional athletes. According to one study, between 4.4% and 4.7% of athletes abuse opioid painkillers, like OxyContin and Vicodin.

Playing professional sports can provide athletes with greater access to prescription opioids. For many, the gateway to opioid abuse is prompted by injury.

One study found that, across all sports, nearly 63 injuries occur for every 100 players per season. Unfortunately, opioid use during a person’s sports career is a major predictor of post-retirement abuse.

Some athletes may use opioids to recover from injuries “faster” without having to miss out on playing. Others may be offered opioid drugs from coaches and other individuals in charge.

Type Of Drug Use Rate Of Addiction Trend
Alcohol Use N/A Consistent
Illicit Drug Use 14-39% of professional athletes are believed to use performance-enhancement drugs Steroids are the most-abused illicit drugs
Prescription Drug Abuse 4.4% to 4.7%, opioid use Opioids are the most-abused prescription drugs

Signs Of Addiction In Professional Athletes

If a person is experiencing a drug or alcohol addiction, there may be telltale signs. These signs can be more obvious depending on the extent of substance use.

Common signs of a substance use disorder (SUD) include:

  • bloodshot, glossy eyes
  • pupils that are oversized or pinhole-sized
  • shakiness or tremors
  • sudden mood swings, e.g., paranoia, fear, aggression, giddiness, etc.
  • uncharacteristic bouts of low energy or hyperactivity
  • reduced concern for personal appearance and/or hygiene
  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • excess sleeping patterns or insomnia
  • increased tolerance

There are also signs of addiction that may be more apparent among athletes and in a professional atmosphere, specifically.

Common signs of substance abuse among athletes include:

  • reduced performance
  • missed practices and/or games
  • increased rate of injuries, both on and off the field
  • new or worsening health issues
  • suspicions of faking injuries to gain access to prescription substances
  • secretive behaviors
  • sudden complaints about financial troubles
  • spending more time with people who are known to drink or use drugs

Possible Contributing Factors To Addiction In The Sports Industry

Competition exists in all industries to some extent. However, for athletes, whose performance and consequential success hinges on their athletic ability, competition exists at a much higher level.

Professional athletes must manage the expectations of coaches, fans, and possible endorsements, as well as their own. Falling short can affect a player’s confidence and finances.

Pressure To Perform

Among the most significant contributors to the stress of professional athletes is the immense pressure to perform. Professional athletes face stiff competition.

There are always younger, faster, and stronger athletes prepared to replace an athlete who falls short. The average athlete retires as a young adult in their 30s, so there isn’t time to waste.

To remain competitive, athletes may use performance-enhancing drugs to improve the “quality” of their training and play. Unfortunately, athletes who are found to use these drugs face harsh penalties.

High Stress

Outside of using performance-enhancing drugs, athletes may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress of preparing for and losing games, meets, and matches.

Suffering from an injury can cause a top athlete and star player to retire early. Consequently, some athletes may use substances to cope with the stress of early and impending retirement.

Athletes are less likely to seek help for mental illness, especially substance abuse, as it can jeopardize their career. As a result, they may tend to focus on their physical condition at the expense of their mental well-being.

Associating Success With Identity

Athletes may strongly identify with their sports performance. As a result, an athlete’s career can very much represent who they are in their own eyes.

Many players have been training for sports since childhood and performed competitively through college. The competitive spirit and desire to win has been ingrained in them.

Because athletics holds such a strong role in these athletes’ lives, they may be willing to risk short-term goals and suffer injuries at the expense of winning.


Some athletes who suffer from injuries may use drugs like opioids to “speed up” their recovery. It’s possible that injured athletes may also abuse opioids due to sadness and boredom.

Greater Access To Substances

Athletes may have greater access to illicit substances, particularly prescription painkillers due to injury. However, successful athletes, especially, also have the funds to provide them with greater access.

Having a plethora of money can make it possible for athletes to abuse drugs or alcohol, for a long period of time, without consequence – especially retired athletes.

Risks Associated With Athletes And Substance Abuse

There are several risks associated with addiction among professional athletes. Perhaps the most obvious consequence is the heightened risk of injury as a result of being under the influence.

Substances can slow down a person’s reaction time, which is an imperative skill when playing sports. Withdrawal symptoms can also impede an athlete’s ability to play.

Abusing drugs or alcohol can cause health problems. Side effects of some prescription and recreational drugs, like amphetamines or ADHD medications, are increased blood pressure, heart rate, and risk of heart attack.

Professional athletes also run the risk of losing their career and reputation as a result of drug use. To combat this, many associations, like the National Football League (NFL), drug-test players.

Supporting Athletes With Substance Use Issues

Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of career, success, or fame. Athletes are no exception; however, there are ways to better support athletes who are struggling.

One of the more effective ways to approach substance abuse among professional athletes is to acknowledge the harsh realities of this line of work. This is known as the harm reduction approach.

If a professional athlete produces a positive drug test, the athlete should be offered opportunities for recovery-based healthcare, detox, and inpatient or outpatient treatment options.

There are addiction treatment programs that specifically cater to professional athletes and are designed in-tune with their needs. More importantly, these programs take away from the stigma of addiction.

Athletes can also explore cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based practice that helps to identify the root of addiction.

Get Help For Addiction

If you or a loved one is dealing with a drug or alcohol addiction, you don’t have to tackle it alone. Contact to get connected with treatment and support services, and start on the road to recovery today.


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