Derek Boogaard: Dying to Win?

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

For sports fanatics like myself, there’s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush we experience when watching our favorite players compete. But all too often, we don’t realize that, despite their physical prowess and glamorous lifestyles, some of these athletes battle serious demons. This was certainly the case with NHL star Derek Boogaard, whose life and death were recently chronicled in a powerful three-part New York Times series. Boogaard was only 27 when he died in May from a lethal cocktail of painkillers and alcohol.

Unfortunately, tragic stories like Boogaard’s are not unique among sports stars—whether or not substance abuse is involved. For example, when successful Welsh soccer player-turned-coach Gary Speed committed suicide last month, no one could understand why. And while we may never know for sure what caused Speed to end his life, it’s certain that the relentless pressure to win had a damaging effect on his (like Boogaard’s) emotional and physical state. As The Times put it, athletes shoulder the emotional weight of “thousands of fans in the arena, countless more watching television and on the internet, of teammates and coaches, roster spots and contracts.” Not to mention that the life of a professional athlete is often a “work hard, party hard” existence—binge drinking is part of the culture, and many turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope.

All this is compounded by the debilitating injuries for which athletes are often prescribed heavy doses of addictive painkillers. After Boogaard’s shoulder surgery in 2009, the doctor told him that due to his size, it would take about twice as much Percocet to numb his pain as it would for the average patient. According to his brother, he’d go through 30 pills in just a couple days. It’s no surprise that in Boogaard’s case—and in others—these factors created a perfect storm for addiction.

So what can we do to prevent losses like these? First, sports leagues should put their players’ health and well-being (physical and mental) first. What if Speed had been offered counseling services? What if, when Boogaard left rehab, his coaches hadn’t so hastily put him back in the game? He clearly wasn’t ready, and it’s up to the sports leagues to make the smart decision—which is not necessarily one that will win quick approval among fans. Next, we need more effective monitoring of prescription drug use within sports leagues. In the throes of his addiction Boogaard would often “doctor shop” among the NHL’s affiliated physicians in order to obtain pills—and there was no system in place to track what he had been prescribed.

Most importantly, we need more athletes to come forward about their recovery as Erik Ainge did this year. Success stories like Ainge’s serve as an example to other players – and their throngs of devoted fans – that recovery is possible. As we tell our kids at Little League or soccer practice: winning isn’t everything, and life is more important than the game.

Howard P. Meitiner
President and Chief Executive Officer
Phoenix House

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