Athletes aren’t immune to the opioid epidemic

Keith Savage, Staff Writer

Photo illustration by Connor Lawless

Professional athletes are viewed at times as somewhat of “superheroes,” millionaires who are invincible and do not have the same problems as everyone else.

That could not be further from the truth.

Athletes are not immune to the same issues people in society deal with, and currently, the U.S. is fighting an opioid overdose epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 93,000 overdoses in 2020, which was nearly a 30% increase from the year prior. Over 69,000 of the overdoses were from opioids. It is a clear issue in the country, but you don’t often hear about the effects it has on athletes until it is too late.

In August, former NHL player Jimmy Hayes tragically passed away due to an accidental fentanyl overdose in his Massachusetts home at the age of 31. He played seven years in the NHL and made over $10 million, but his death showed how no matter how much money athletes make, they can be vulnerable to the same things anyone may face.

As a Bostonian, I saw how Hayes’ death impacted a lot of people in the Massachusetts community. It showed how bad the crisis is getting. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with people who have been in places like recovery centers. Over time, it has been clear how much worse the issue is getting.

Overdose deaths aren’t just an issue in professional sports leagues such as the NHL, it can also hurt college athletes.

In May, Texas University redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Ehlinger died at the age of 20 of an overdose. He was on his way to the NFL like his older brother, Sam, a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. Even with such a bright future, addiction was something he had an issue with and what sadly ended his life.

A major question is why would a talented athlete succumb to drugs? That question is going to be different for almost everyone. Jake Ehlinger could have been going through mental health issues and drugs might have been a way to clear his mind. After all, these athletes go through the same problems as everyone else.

We are in a period of time where it is not uncommon to hear college students doing drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that in one month, 22.2% of college students used an illicit drug. As a student in college, I hear people my age talk about doing drugs and do not think of what’s wrong with it. It is not hard for them to access and that isn’t changing anytime soon. I could only imagine how easy it is for professional athletes to have that access.

The list could go on for athletes that have overdosed and sadly, the list is going to continue to grow. We can only hope that we start to see fewer deaths, but based on how the country is trending, it is looking unlikely that the numbers will go down.

How can professional sports leagues and even fans help athletes receive help if they are going down the addictive road of drugs?

In recent years, we have seen players like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott talk about their mental health issues, and it has become a more comfortable topic to talk about. That should be the same for addiction to drugs. Drug addiction is rarely talked about in sports, but it would not be surprising if it will start soon. Unfortunately, deaths from drugs are going to continue to happen to athletes but when will people offer real help?

Hopefully, the tragic deaths of athletes like Hayes and Ehlinger open people’s eyes to show they can also get consumed by the addiction to drugs. We should never view anybody that is on drugs in a negative way. Everyone goes through problems, and these athletes need help, just like us.