This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Jim McMahon is in pain, has been in pain for a long, long time, all through his football-playing days, and long after them. And he's not alone. He recently told Sports Illustrated that to deal with the hurt, he took large amounts of painkillers every day. He also said that a better way to manage the pain is to use marijuana. He said, on account of the NFL's policy banning weed, that the league is conspiring with drug companies.
Regarding the marijuana ban, and Roger Goodell's claim that it is in the players' best interests, he said: "That's BS. They want you taking those pills. I think they're in cahoots with Big Pharma. My whole career they were pushing pills on you. For whatever ailment you have, they have a pill for you."
He also said: "That's the reason they're demonizing this plant the way they are, because you wouldn't have these problems with these guys with all their head injuries and these kinds of things, the joints. This stuff is so much better for you. There's no side effects. It doesn't kill anybody. There's no documented cases of people dying. There's hundreds of thousands of people dying every year from these pills."
I do not believe the NFL is "in cahoots" with drug makers.
But I have talked with and interviewed at least two fistfuls of players college and pro who have struggled with the effects of taking, and in many cases, abusing painkillers. Max Hall recently said that his problems with drug usage took hold while playing in the NFL. Another player, who had a distinguished college and NFL career, said taking painkillers is part of the reality of playing professional football.
Unfortunately, that reality extends far beyond the NFL.
A survey taken earlier this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that 44 percent of Americans know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers. In 2014, nearly 19,000 people died from painkiller overdoses.
A study done by researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine and first publicized by ESPN, revealed that 52 percent of retired NFL players said they used prescription painkillers during their playing careers, and that of those players, 71 percent misused the medication then; 15 percent said they had misused the pills within the past 30 days. Those players who abused the drugs while playing were more likely, according to the research, to misuse the painkillers now. Overall, players were three times more likely to abuse painkillers than the general population.
One of the most memorable interviews I ever experienced was with a football player at a Utah college who started taking Oxycontin to manage pain suffered from injuries to his back. He took some, and then more, and then … it got out of hand. It made him sick. It spun him into depression. It took over his life. It not only made him want to bail on his family and friends, it made him want to die.
"I was lost," he said at the time. "I was in the depths of hell."
He added: "I wanted to be left by myself. I didn't want to be around anyone. … They all worried about me, but I didn't want them to worry. I thought they'd be better off without me. I felt worthless. I cried all the time. It was dark."
The popping of the pills, he said, "would give me an hour of peace." And then, the feeling of brief euphoria would leave him, betray him.
"You feel so crappy," he said. "You just want to end it. I had thoughts about life not being worth living. In my mind, it wasn't. Emotionally, physically, mentally, I was trying to get out of the depths of hell."
He called the Oxycontin "the devil itself."
McMahon danced with the devil, too, saying he took up to 10 doses of painkillers a day at one point. He said he also had suicidal thoughts. He said proper diagnosis of blockage in his spinal cord has given him more hope.
I'm not straight advocating the legalization of marijuana, like McMahon seems to, but maybe he's onto something. Maybe it should be strongly considered. Hell, let's just do it. The prescription painkiller problem, inside and outside of football, might be a whole lot worse than smoking weed. It's a lot more tragic. Athletes, people, who are in pain need relief by some means that won't swamp their lives, that won't take possession of them, that won't devastate and betray them, which is exactly what prescription drugs too often do.
For active players, they do what they think they have to do to get back on the field. They'll worry about the lasting effects later. That's another ugly reality of football. It's a violent game. Pain relievers don't ruin every player's life, but the devil stands at the door, always knocking.
There's got to be a better way to answer it.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.