The Health and Drug Use Concerns of Professional Athletes

The link between athletes and drugs begins with the athletic mindset to overcome pain, the drive to be better, and an overabundance of opioids.

The Health and Drug Use of Professional Athletes
The Health and Drug Use of Professional Athletes

The Health and Drug Use Concerns of Professional Athletes

The link between athletes and drugs begins with the athletic mindset to overcome pain, the drive to be better, and an overabundance of opioids.

The information presented on this page is a general overview and is offered here as a comprehensive resource. At Ampelis Recovery, our programs are customized and tailored to the individual’s needs. Specific details below that cover treatment protocols may not reflect the protocols used for our clients.

If you would like to learn more about Ampelis Recovery and our customized programs for professional men, please do not hesitate to reach out.


Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a common ailment among professional athletes. Any physical injuries they obtain through their career run the chance of being aggravated by continuous playtime and exercise. An athlete’s aging body and prior injuries make chronic pain almost inevitable.1 This factor is particularly true for athletes such as NHL players or those in the NFL.

Ampelis Recovery’s medical team uses its experience treating professional athletes to provide private, more complete recovery from addiction.

Ease of Getting Drugs

The idolization of professional athletes contributes to the ease with which they can obtain drugs. Several people reinforce the connection between athletes and drugs as a way of bettering their social standing. The vast financial resources of professional athletes also make paying for substances a non-issue.2 However, after their careers are over, the link between athletes and drugs often leads to bankruptcy.

More Opportunities and Enhanced Risk

Most professional athletes start their careers in their late teens and early twenties. Their young age combined with sudden fame and financial success opens a lot of doors. However, there is often little effort made to ensure the transition from anonymity to fame is smooth. The opportunities provided to athletes can come at significant risk, partly due to naivete. While drug use becomes an issue, so does making poor investments, disconnecting from stable emotional environments, and work burnout.2

The Inability to Avoid Relapse/Addiction Triggers

Athletes that develop PTSD from their sport have difficulty avoiding triggers and relapse. Stressors constantly surround them in high-paced environments. These factors can make it difficult for the brain to heal or process trauma. Substance abuse related to chronic pain is all the more likely to reemerge with each new or aggravated injury.3

Learn More About Healing the Brain

  • Holistic Approach
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Positive Psychology

What Does an Athlete Have at Risk?

Whether battling addiction or climbing their pay ladder, athletes risk their careers daily. The risk athletes take contributes to the link between athletes and drugs. Any injury can cost them millions, and their professional reputation is constantly at stake. In the case of high-impact sports, their long-term mental well-being is at risk with each hit.

Average Earnings and Wealth for Each Sport

NFL: The career of most NFL players ranges from 2-5 years. Most NFL players retire by age 30. In that time, NFL players make $860,000 annually or approximately $4.3 million throughout their careers.4

MLB: MLB players have a six-year career on average. Pitchers tend to have a shorter career, and some MLB players only play one year in the pros. Like the NFL, MLB players tend to retire by 30. The average pay is shy of $600,000 a year for an average of around $3.5 million career earnings.5

NBA: NBA players play for roughly 4 ½ years before retirement. As the highest-paid sport, they make over $7 million per year. NBA players average around $25 million per career and have overseas options for the off-season – i.e., time outside of competitive play.6

NHL: NHL players play for approximately 4.5 years and retire by 30. NHL players undergo a lifetime’s worth of physical trauma in that time. They make an average of $3.2 million annually and roughly $14 million over their career.7

NASCAR: NASCAR drivers have endorsement deals and race winnings built into the pay model. Base pay for NASCAR drivers ranges around $300,000. The average career for NASCAR drivers is 3-6 years. They make approximately $1 million during their career.8

Unique Concerns of Athletes Seeking Addiction Treatment

The Need for Privacy

Professional athletes may feel that seeking treatment puts their career at risk. Athletes and drugs are easy headlines and seeing themselves portrayed in a negative light increases the risk for substance use. Many professional athletes also fear letting their family and fans down by admitting to substance use disorder.

Learning to Deal with Relapse Triggers

Healthy coping mechanisms are essential to recovery. For professional athletes, dealing with relapse triggers involves trauma therapy and, at times, medication. Relapse triggers can be any sensory stimulation linked to a traumatic event. Triggers can be physical (e.g., a hard hit or injury). However, feelings of loss, inadequacy, and bad decisions related to their sport can also be triggers.

The Expectation of the Best Care and Luxury Rehab

The connection between athletes and drugs can be broken through proper rehab. Athletes expect the best care that their hard-earned money can afford. Serene views, total privacy, adequate nutrition, and exercise time are factors for many athletes seeking recovery.

Drug Use in the NFL

Short Career

NFL players experience short careers. Life after the NFL is a concern for any active player. This knowledge and short career span contribute to many substance use issues plaguing active and retired players.

High-injury sport

Football is by nature a high-impact, high-octane sport. Players sustain hundreds to thousands of hits per career. The long-term effects of which can result in chronic pain, reduced mental function, and mental illness.

Football cultivates a hyper-aggressive environment. This environment leads to sustained, traumatic injuries, including concussions, bone breaks, sprains, muscle damage, and disc herniation.9 These injuries can, in turn, lead to abuse of prescription drugs.

Incentives to play through pain

Football players play through pain as a way of proving themselves to teammates, fans, and coaches. Another factor is the young age when most football players are active. Feelings of invincibility and ego are likely to run rampant. However, the most significant factor for most NFL players is financial incentives.

Financial incentives earned during a short professional window forces athletes to play through pain. The short career span of the average NFL players means that every second on the field counts. Any game could be the game that propels them to the limelight and future contracts. Playing through the pain is a way of achieving these goals, and opioids and other prescription drugs enable them to play through injury.10

Team doctors are in place to keep a player in the game for as long as possible, often with painkillers. The NFL recently made headlines as lawsuits were leveraged against them for team doctors handing out pain killers in violation of medical guidelines.11

Players Lawsuit Against the League

There have been several lawsuits against the NFL for its use of pain killers. In 2015, 1,800 former NFL players brought a lawsuit against the NFL. The lawsuit alleged that team doctors prescribed pain killers at a high rate without informing NFL players of the long-term risk. Players state doctors would essentially give them whatever they needed to keep them on the field.12

Brett Favre’s Addiction Problems

Famous quarterback Brett Favre suffered from substance use disorder. Favre stated he’d taken up to 15 Vicodin, an opioid, per day at its peak. That’s approximately half a month worth of the opioid. While Favre went on to play several more seasons, he referred to quitting Vicodin as one of the most challenging months of his life. Painkillers and prescription drugs are so widespread in the NFL that when he ran out of his prescription drugs, he was able to obtain more from teammates.13

Brett Favre played 20 seasons in the NFL. A substantially longer time than the average player. He was a star player on the Green Bay Packers and hailed from Mississippi. He overcame his substance use after the 3rd recovery attempt in 1996 and went on to win the Superbowl that same year.14

Drug Use in MLB

History of Cocaine Use and Amphetamines in MLB

Cocaine, amphetamine, and stimulant abuse are a significant part of baseball’s history. The ability to stay alert and awake is invaluable in a sport centered around split-second decisions. The biggest example of substance abuse in the MLB is the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials.15

In 1985, amphetamines, referred to at the time as Greenies, were prevalent in MLB. Over a dozen MLB players testified against the practice and spoke about how these drugs affected them. Amphetamines are preferred over cocaine as they don’t impact performance. The aftermath of the trials included more drug testing, but there were little to no further changes.15

Cocaine Use in the MLB Today

In 2015, MLB player Tommy Hanson died from a cocaine overdose. The next year his peer, Jose Fernadez, died from a cocaine overdose. MLB players allege that up to 25% of the league uses cocaine. In 2021, a Cubs prospect was caught trafficking dozens of pounds of cocaine.

The deaths of MLB players because of cocaine use are still high. However, following the deaths of Tommy Hanson and Jose Fernadez and the public outcry that came from these deaths, the MLB made drug testing changes. In 2019, drug testing no longer looked only for marijuana. The focus is now on opioids, cocaine, fentanyl, and synthetic marijuana.15

Drug Use in NBA

NBA players estimate that 85% of their peers use marijuana, a finable offensive in the NBA. However, due to concerns around Covid-19, drug testing for marijuana was temporarily removed for the 2020-2021 season. Many hoped the change would be permanent.16

In the 1980s, the New York Knicks were accused of rigging games to favor the bets of their cocaine supplier. Several players even began betting against themselves. Their lead scorer, Michael Ray Richardson, was banned for life concerning this event.17

Len Bias

Len Bias was a promising young draft pick who passed away from a cocaine overdose. Len’s death occured just two days before he was due to start training with the NBA. He serves as an example of the tragic ending that can come from substance abuse.

Chris Herren’s Story

Chris Herren is a former NBA player who battled addiction for most of his adult life. Chris’s addiction began with alcohol abuse at a young age and gradually developed into heroin use. Chris Herren went on to overcome his addiction and today leads a healthy life.17

Drug Use in NHL and NASCAR

SUD in the NHL

NHL commissioner Bill Daly went on record as recently as 2015 to speak out against the rising trend of cocaine among the NHL. Athletes and drugs have long been related to one another, but the rampant abuse of prescription drugs and opioids is changing the NHL’s perception on the matter.18

Russian player Evgeny Kuznetsov faced a 3-game suspension after testing positive for cocaine.19 In 2015, NHL player Jarret Stoll was arrested for possession of cocaine and molly (a stimulant and hallucinogen).20

Alcohol abuse also has a long history in the NHL. Dozens of current and former players have come forward about their struggles with alcohol abuse, causing the NHL to look further into the severity of substance abuse.21


NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin alleged that 70% of NASCAR drivers suffer from Adderall dependency.22

Jeremy Mayfield, who was once a prominent NASCAR driver, had his career ruined from substance abuse. Jeremy had an addiction to meth, and his substance use disorder extended to the point where his home went into foreclosure.23 Jeremy Mayfield serves as a classic example of the dangers of athletes and drugs.

Athletes of all sports may use drugs to increase their performance or overcome pain. Substance abuse can have dangerous consequences and may lead to severe addiction, overdose, or even death. By seeking help and working towards recovery, however, even professional athletes can achieve a drug-free life.