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Famous Athletes and Addiction: A Common Struggle

Famous Athletes and Addiction: A Common Struggle

Sports figures are known for their athletic prowess and physical abilities, but they too, can struggle with substance abuse. “It has to do with this invincibility. I hate to say this, but a lot of professional athletes suffer from the same misconceptions that teenagers do. What I’m referring to is this invincibility – Yes, it happened to the other guy, but it won’t happen to me.” ~ Dr. Louis E. Baxter, Executive Medical Director of the Professional Assistance Program in New Jersey Their bodies are their tools, and they operate at the pinnacle of human performance. They are adored by millions for their athletic prowess, and their ability to run faster or jump higher can earn them tensor even hundreds of millions of dollars.

Risk Factors for Addictions Are Multiplied

Yet, famous sports figures are just as much at risk – and perhaps even more – as the rest of us to developing a problem with drugs or alcohol, with factors such as:

  • Genetics
  • Family history
  • Social environment
  • Availability
  • Permissiveness
  • Physical and emotional trauma
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Pain management that can lead to addiction

Here are some prominent athletes whose careers were negatively impacted, cut short, or even completely destroyed by drug and/or alcohol use –

Todd Marinovich USC Trojans, Los Angeles Raiders, BC Lions, Los Angeles Avengers

According to Sports Illustrated, Marinovich was “bred to be a superstar”, who was brought up – some would say abusively – by his father to be the perfect quarterback. He set the national high school record for passing yardage and in college at USC, he was 1989’s The Sporting News “College Freshman of the Year”. When he entered the 1991 NFL draft early, he was taken ahead of future-Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. As a rookie, he had serious substance abuse problems, including marijuana, cocaine, and pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines. To circumvent drug tests, he used the clean urine of other teammates and switched to LSD, which would not show up. By 1993, he failed his third drug test, was suspended for a year, and his team released him. Over the next few years, as he attempted various comebacks, his drug use increased and expanded to include heroin and crack, which he would even use during games. Playing in the Arena League in 2000, he was arrested for buying heroin on the same day that he received his signing bonus. Marinovich was arrested numerous times for drug charges between 1991 and 2007. Today, Marinovich has a budding career as an abstract artist.

Chris Washburn North Carolina State, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks

In 1984, the 6’11” Washburn was one of the most sought-after high school recruits in the United States, and eventually signed to play basketball for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Because of his athletic promise, character issues (a burglary conviction) and poor academic performance (his grades were changed to maintain eligibility) were permissively overlooked. When he left college early to enter the 1986 NBA draft, he was taken third overall and was considered to have a huge upside. That promise was never delivered upon – in two seasons, he only played 72 games, averaging approximately 3 points and 2 rebounds per game. In 1989, Washburn was hit with a lifetime ban from the NBA after failing his third drug test in three years when he tested positive for cocaine. Over the next few years, Washburn played for several minor-league and foreign basketball teams, but his drug addiction eventually had him living in Houston in crack houses and abandoned buildings and eating out of trash cans. He was in and out of a dozen rehab centers. Washburn finally got clean in 2000 and has been sober ever since. He spends some of his time these days speaking at youth basketball camps and reaching out to other athletes hoping to overcome their drug addictions.

George Best Manchester United, the North Ireland national team, among other teams

Best was simply called the “greatest player to ever pull on the green shirt of Northern Ireland” by the Irish Football Association, and he was one of the first celebrity soccer players. He made his debut at only 17, and in short order, became his team’s undisputed star. Honors included a European cup, European Footballer of the Year, and FWA Footballer of the Year. World Soccer ranked him #8 among the greatest football players of the twentieth century. Best lived a wildly extravagant lifestyle, famously quipping, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars – the rest I just squandered.” That lifestyle included serious alcoholism his entire adult life. The drinking severely damaged his liver, and in 2002 he underwent a successful operation for a liver transplant, after which he resumed drinking. He died in 2005 of multiple organ failure at only 59 years old. One of the last pictures of Best shows him on his deathbed, severely jaundiced and ill, with a caption that warned about the hazards of alcohol – “Don’t die like me“.

Mickey Mantle New York Yankees

Like Best, Mantle was an extraordinary talent who, as phenomenal as he was, left the lingering question – “How good could he have been?” He was a 16-time All-Star, a 7-time World Series champion, a 4-time home run leader, and a 3-time MVP, and the consensus is still that his alcoholism hurt his talent. Because his father and grandfather had died young, Mantle expected to do the same. As a result, he lived and drank hard, yet he outlived all of his male relatives by several years. In early 1994, after nearly 40 years of drinking, a doctor told him that his liver “looked like a doorstop“, and that “your next drink could be your last“. In 1995, Mantle was suffering from severe cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis C, and inoperable liver cancer, and received a transplant in Dallas. He died August of that year, saying “Don’t be like me“. He was only 63 years old.

What Can We Learn from the Lives of These Athletes?

Like other high-functioning addicts and alcoholics, these athletes were able to realize a great deal of success and recognition. But like all substance abusers, however, their disease of addiction caught up with them, negatively impacting their lives and their careers, often to the point of unmanageability and ruin. In retrospect, their lives can serve as cautionary tales, because addiction does not care about talent or potential. If you or someone you know has a problem with drugs or alcohol they need help – no matter how successful they may otherwise seem to be. With the proper help and support, recovery is possible. Sobriety can bring serenity, leading to a better life for the substance abuser and everyone around them. As Mickey Mantle used to say, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”