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The toughest opponent facing student athletes could be drug addiction



A new town hall series to reveal the dangers of prescription painkillers for NJ’s high school athletes

For high school athletes, a football field or gym can be the site of ultimate glory. They can also be where drug addiction begins.

That’s because sports can lead to severe, painful injuries that may require prescription opioid painkillers. While helpful, these medications can trigger dependency in as little as three to five days, which can lead to misuse or even illicit drug use. In fact, about 80 percent of heroin users start out by abusing narcotic painkillers.

To protect New Jersey’s youth, the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey are teaming up to develop town halls to educate the public on the dangers of opioid use and misuse by student athletes.

“Most athletes, parents and coaches don’t know about the link between prescription opioids and heroin abuse,” said Angela Conover, Director of Opioid Response & Prevention Outreach Services at PDFNJ. “We want to give them the information they need to make good decisions to stay healthy and avoid addiction.”

The town halls, to be delivered in 10 high schools statewide beginning in the fall, will feature a former professional athlete who has battled a substance use disorder and will share how it impacted his own life and those around him. Collaborating partner New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) will help facilitate participation from its base of approximately 433 member schools.

The town halls are inspired by a similar, successful event held at Rutgers University in October 2019 where former Scarlett Knights starting quarterback Ray Lucas talked emotionally about an opioid addiction he developed after an NFL injury. At one point, he was taking 1,400 opioid pills a month.

“Hearing someone’s personal story plays an important role in illuminating how addiction can occur and the risks athletes face,” Conover said.

A personal account also helps remove some of the stigma attached to addiction, which can prevent people from getting treatment. “We want to show that people with addictions are not bad people. They’re just struggling,” Conover added.

Continuing NJ's fight against opioid abuse

Funded by The Horizon Foundation of New Jersey, the town halls represent a third phase of PDFNJ’s Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative. In addition to holding community town halls, the initiative has created a continuing education course for prescribers on responsible prescribing and alternative pain therapies, and educated parents of fifth graders on prevention and intervention strategies.

“We’re proud to work once again with the Partnership to make an impact on the opioid epidemic which continues to ravage our state,” said Jonathan Pearson, Executive Director at The Horizon Foundation. “These town halls will help spread our messages to the broader student population and the diverse communities Horizon serves.”

Currently scheduled to be in-person, the town hall series will also offer additional virtual events to reach more students. An educational resource center for teachers and coaches – developed in partnership with the Horizon Behavioral Health team – will also be hosted on the Knock Out Opioid Abuse website.

Making New Jersey a national leader in prevention

Together, the NJSIAA and the state have created a fact sheet on opioid misuse that must be distributed by law to all schools engaged in sports. The NJSIAA also requires that all student athletes and cheerleaders watch a video about the dangers of prescription pain medication.

The groups also helped make New Jersey the first state to pass a law requiring physicians and dentists to discuss the addictive qualities of prescribed drugs with their patients.

“This type of law is now in 18 states and has been introduced at the federal level too,” Conover said.

Tips for parents and coaches to protect kids 

With about 12 percent of high school male athletes and 8 percent of female athletes having used prescription opioids, parents and coaches need to be aware of how they can limit the dangers to these vulnerable teens:

  • Know the alternatives. The pain from most sports-related injuries can be managed with over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Ask your child’s doctor if you can avoid narcotics.
  • Secure medications. Eighty-three percent of adolescents had unsupervised access to their prescription medications. Parents should understand how to properly store and dispose of medications, even if they think their children wouldn’t try to access them.
  • Recognize the symptoms. During the first stage of opioid misuse, athletes may feel nauseous or vomit. Another sign of a possible opioid addiction is a slip in an athlete’s academic or athletic performance, or a lack of interest in their sport.
  • Prevent injuries. There’s no need for pain medications if you can keep injuries from happening in the first place. Follow these tips to reduce the risk of sports injuries.