Opioids in Sports: An Increasing and Disturbing Trend

It is becoming more common. 

And more alarming. 

Just a couple days ago it was announced in the autopsy reports for Tyler Skaggs that the opioids, fentanyl, and oxycodone, along with alcohol, were in his system at the time of his death on July 1 when the Los Angeles Angels were in Arlington to play the Texas Rangers. 

Opioids, such as fentanyl, have become such a huge issue in the United States that members of US Congress have proposed legislation against countries known to produce it to prevent the drug from entering the country. 

This issue is trickling, and possibly flooding, into the sports world. Drug usage in sports in the form of painkillers, such as opioids, have become a staple to athletes looking to relieve the stress, grind, and toll professional sports bring to their bodies and minds. 

But why is this the case? Sure, athletes take painkillers all the time. Sports are physical, and as a result, aches, pains, and the sort will occur. Team physicians will prescribe painkillers to players. It occurs daily. 

Fentanyl and oxycodone are prohibited substances. In the case of baseball, both substances are banned under MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. It is not just a baseball-only ban either. Under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), both substances are banned from use in sports, which not only includes professional leagues but also in collegiate athletics and world competition, such as in the Olympic Games. 

Again, the question remains unanswered. 

Why do athletes continue to take substances such as these? 

The reasons could be endless, but two areas, in particular, could be striking reasons as to why this is taking place. 

The first reason is simple. In MLB, players on 40-man rosters are not tested for drugs of this substance unless “reasonable cause” is found; if a player has been found to use it before or if a player is subject to testing under a treatment program. Players that do not have a history with drug use means, on the surface, there is no “reasonable cause” to test them. Because of this loophole, players that have no history of drug use would have no reason to not use them, as there is no fear of them being tested for it. 

The second reason could arguably be simpler than the first. And more subtle.

The pressure.

Sports are more than just the game itself. Athletes must prepare for the game through practices, work-out sessions, and specialized training to recover from any injuries that possibly take place during that time. 

When games take place, it is possible for millions to be watching on any given night. In MLB, there are 162 regular-season games. In the NBA and NHL, there are 82 regular-season games. In the NFL, there are 16 regular-season games. And, of course, all sports leagues have their respective postseasons. Collectively, no matter what sport, the spotlight is on the athletes. Constantly. With social media becoming more common, the game is not the only thing being spotlighted now. The practices, as mentioned above, are also being shown more frequently. 

Athletes are put on such a high pedestal that it is possible that some feel as if they must succeed. For athletes that get injured, some could feel pressured into getting back onto the field, rink, court or pitch in order to not only live up to their teammates but also to the fans as soon as possible. The pressure to live up to not only a contract, perhaps, but also the pressure to succeed and constantly be in the action. 

Is it possible that drug usage in the form of banned painkillers is increasing due to drug agencies not prioritizing it as opposed to drug-enhancers? Perhaps. 

Is it possible players feel coerced into taking painkillers to get over possible injuries, or to come back from injury, in order to live up to the severe pressure to succeed? Definitely. 

The extent to which this is taking place in sports is unknown.

The trend to which it could be happening is scary, and something must be done. 

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