Ahhhh, the good old days. When the only drugs the players were using was cocaine and probably weed.
Just as some drugs may act by mimicking the brain’s own message for a job well done, and are more addictive for people highly sensitized to this mode of reinforcement, so some behaviors, such as athletics, can mimic the effects of drugs. Some athletes describe sacking the quarterback during the Super Bowl as creating a high “very much like cocaine.”
Athletes, like other performers, work during practice and during actual competitions for personal reward and recognition/applause. Too many athletes to be ignored by researchers describe their drug use as producing similar effects to that perfect performance. But, sooner or later, drug highs, by being quicker and easier to obtain, can take over the athlete.
Drugs are also often used by athletes who are at or near the end of their careers: The excuses, “To prolong my career” or “To get by” are frequently heard by consultants and loved ones. Unfortunately, too often very severe accidents and injuries result from such drug use, and the player stands a high chance of starting a new career that is coupled with a chronic, lifelong, relapsing illness–addiction.
But, do athletes have more occurrences of substance abuse and addiction than other highly paid professionals? Yes. The problem, while severe, is not as widespread or automatic as it once was thanks to education/prevention programs, peer counseling, and drug testing.
The problems of baseball star Dwight Gooden illustrate many important points in the identification and treatment of drug addiction in athletes. Drug testing is a critical tool in the early, pre-morbid diagnosis of drug addiction; the presence of cocaine in Gooden’s urine, in spite of his denying the use of cocaine, is indicative of the “loss of control” and inherent denial in cocaine addiction.
As reported in the media, Dwight Gooden requested drug testing to confirm the absence of his cocaine use. Further, he submitted to drug testing with knowledge of his recent cocaine use. While this seems paradoxical to the public, why should Gooden be immune from drug-use denial just because he is a great athlete?
Enabling, or co-addiction, is a phenomenon in which those who surround the addict participate in the protection and propagation of the addictive behavior; the denial present in the enablers is similar to that in the addict. Typically, a star player’s teammates, employers, and friends are part of the firmly rooted and pervasive denial system.
What is needed is some way to separate the team’s needs from the addict’s needs for an intervention. A good umpire in these conflicts is drug testing; drug testing is an objective method for confronting and circumventing enabling wherever it exists.
Drug testing has another important beneficial consequence that is dramatically illustrated in the Dwight Gooden case: While the athlete may continue to use drugs and play for perhaps another season or two before undergoing the final collapse of addiction, drug testing can prompt an intervention in the earliest and most treatable stage.
The concept of not rendering help to the addict before the addict initially seeks it is archaic and dangerous. Many times this delay leads to a drug abuse diagnosis after an accident, suicide, or irreparable loss, or at a time when the addict is untreatable. Intervention and confrontation can dissipate the pervasive denial system and increase acceptance of the drug addiction by the addict.
These lifesaving maneuvers can, and often do, lead to successful treatment of the addiction. In a sense, the addict’s low-point is raised to the time and level of the intervention. The intervention must involve the addicted athlete, the enablers, the owners, and fans.
Another lesson we’ve learned from the addicted athlete cases thus far is that the consequences of an addiction are only relatively incapacitating in their severity; addicts can, and do, perform at levels significantly above average but below their capabilities because of their addiction.
The consequences of addiction are relative and pertinent for each individual. Most pitchers would not reach the heights of a 17 and 8 record in their careers; Dwight Gooden did that while falling down. Were other addicted athletes resentful? Maybe. But, by raising the addict’s low point through information provided by a teammate or a loved one, or by a positive drug test, the addicted athlete can recognize that treatment will extend his or her career in sports.
Mark S. Gold, M.D., is the author of “Facts About Drugs and Alcohol,” Bantam Books, 1987.
Gold, Mark S. “Athletic high imitates drug high; baseball’s Dwight Gooden.” Alcoholism & Addiction Magazine Apr. 1988: 9