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Prescribing a New Tactic

The alluring high of potent painkillers has led to an unexpected and dangerous college locker-room issue: addiction

Brian Hendrickson

Every few years, a new concern for the well-being of student-athletes emerges. And while the problem may be known, the scope of the danger often isn’t fully understood.

Look back to the 1990s and find the troubles with eating disorders. Look back just a decade ago and find the silent killer that sickle-cell trait became. In more recent times, it’s become impossible to overlook the potential dangers of concussion, a condition athletes were once urged to shake off.

Now see this story and read about a new concern that few are discussing: the risk painkillers pose to young athletes. There’s a good chance you never considered painkiller use to be an “epidemic,” the term used by the Centers for Disease Control to describe the current abuse of pain management medicines among young people. After all, injuries are natural to sport, and pain management is natural to recovery from many injuries. But there is another side to their use: the easy introduction to their potent high through initial prescriptions; ready access to more pills through black markets; and eventually, a pathway to dangerous street drugs.

And because injuries are so common among athletes, they can easily become victims of this new trend that is just starting to reveal itself in the college community.

The NCAA Champion magazine staff was first alerted to the issue when we reviewed the NCAA’s latest National Study of Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes last summer. Its findings showed that more traditional concerns, such as the use of social drugs, had stabilized. In fact, use of marijuana and alcohol had actually declined.

Use of painkillers, however, showed a significant increase: Six percent of respondents acknowledged the use of Vicodin, OxyContin or Percocet without a prescription. That might look like a small number, but that’s six or seven kids on an average football roster. When combined with broader trends seen outside the athletics world, the number raised immediate concerns: “Such drug use has become a societal problem that has infiltrated college campuses,” NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline said when the data was released.

That information led Champion Assistant Editor Brian Burnsed to seek out the faces behind that data. It directed him to rehabilitation centers, where workers described a regular flow of athletes walking through their doors — nearly all of whom declined to discuss their addictions out of fear that such public disclosure could negatively affect their career aspirations after rehab. Ultimately, it led him to the story of Mike Devlin, a promising lacrosse star in high school whose downward slide to acute opiate addiction started with a sports injury.

His story is important because his problem started outside the jurisdiction of college coaches, trainers and administrators – people who might think they could control such a problem with restrictions and oversight. Yet Devlin brought his troubles to the University of Vermont campus, his first taste of painkillers’ highs having come from a family doctor’s prescription note. After earning a walk-on position with the Division I program, the addiction that followed him not only ended his lacrosse career, but nearly ended his life.

Devlin’s story is an emotional, tragic tale. But it is important because it could be anyone’s. Devlin’s path to painkiller abuse is a template any athlete could easily follow – a high school player in your community, a new recruit on your campus, or even your own child.

The best defense against an emerging health and safety trend is to recognize the danger before the threat grows — before tragedy strikes, tears are shed, and lawsuits and media reports testify to the damage.

So read Mike Devlin’s story. Learn from it. And use its lessons to help the athletes you work with, play with or parent stay off the path that nearly turned Devlin’s story into a silent tragedy instead of a provocative lesson for all of us.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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