Athletes & Addiction: Lives on the Line

Jun 26 2019

Athletes & Addiction: Lives on the Line

Big games bring big pressure. Professional and amateur athletes live for the moment and thrive on this pressure. When the game’s over and the crowd is silenced, the need to thrive and compete often continues. Imagine dedicating hours each day to competing at the highest level, entertaining and laying it all on the line, day after day. What does one do with this energy on a Tuesday evening? Put some tea on the stove and curl up with NPR or a light novel? If you’ve paid attention to boxing, baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, tennis or any other major sport throughout the years, you know the answer for many is “not a chance.”

According to a recent study, it’s more likely that an athlete continues playing hard away from the game: “The purpose of this study was to examine the possible links between participation in sport and the subsequent development of substance addiction.” They say winning is contagious: it can also be addictive: for all his grace under pressure, Michael Jordan’s triumphs were often shrouded in relief and release. The drive to be the best, to conquer the opponent, the odds, the clock, mother nature herself is insatiable for top-level athletes. This drive must be fueled.

Often the fuel is of a harmful vintage: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that “arts, entertainment and recreation” professions are abundant with substance use disorder. The study called Exploring the role of sport in the development of substance addiction, digs deeper to try and understand the link between competitive athletics and substance use disorders. The study found and interviewed “participants based on their level of sport engagement, from recreational athletes to those who played sports as youngsters but dropped out in high school — often because of drugs and alcohol — to the largest group, elite athletes.”

Indeed, the risks inherent in competition—losing, failure, injury, embarrassments—help to fuel the tank for athletes. There’s always something on the line. This doesn’t stop when the game is over: out on the town, at the party, or even alone: there’s always something on the line for the competition. In other words, for some competitors, the game never ends: the study suggested athletes “wanted to be the best at whatever they did, so if that meant being the best heroin user, that’s what they did.”

Sports are worthwhile ventures for the discipline, fellowship and resilience they inspire. Not all athletes turn to substances when the buzzer sounds. Competitors are at risk, however, as noted in this study, because the culture of sports often points to wild living. “The cultures are quite machismo and the pressures on the young people are quite high,” said Alex Clark, professor in the Faculty of Nursing, who helped to model the study. “Coaches turn a blind eye and some actively encourage the team-ship that’s based on a work-hard, play-hard culture.”

The conclusions of the study offer insight and provide a warning that we can heed to help new generations of athletes: “The prevalence of substance abuse in sport contexts poses heightened risk of addiction for individuals who are already vulnerable for other reasons such as the presence of predisposing behaviors, psychological characteristics, or circumstances.” Recognizing the talented athlete as a real human with needs beyond the arena of competition can help us to support our modern-day gladiators for life beyond the coliseum. With help, the game may continue for athletes as it was designed: for fun, for health and for pride.

Help is Out There


de Grace, L. A., Knight, C. J., Rodgers, W. M., & Clark, A. M. (2017). Exploring the role of sport in the development of substance addiction. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 28, 46-57.