'Part of the culture': Study suggests link between sports and addiction

One of the many benefits of kids playing sports is the exercise can promote a healthy lifestyle for them at an impressionable age.

Laurie de Grace said athletes coping with loss of sport, high pressure with substance abuse

Opioids are among many substances to which athletes can become addicted - especially if they begin taking them while they are injured. (Canadian Press)

One of the many benefits of children playing sports is that the exercise can promote a healthy lifestyle at an impressionable age. But a new study suggests that sports culture could make kids more susceptible to addiction.

Laurie de Grace, a researcher at the University of Alberta, interviewed 21 people about their experiences. Seven people used to be addicted to a substance but were sober, 13 were in an addiction treatment program, and one was a counsellor.

Through her research, the master's graduate of the faculty of Physical Education and Recreation found that while playing sports doesn't mean athletes will necessarily develop addictions, it is often the culture that can push athletes toward problems with drugs or alcohol.
Edmonton Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly gets beer poured on his head after winning the Grey Cup in 2015. Alcohol is a prominent part of sports culture, often making athletes more susceptible to addiction. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"The more risk factors that are present, the more likely they are to occur," de Grace told CBC News this week.

Injuries treated with prescribed drugs, dysfunctional families and families with addictive tendencies are all additional risk factors for athletes, de Grace said.

"Something in the sport culture got them to start," she said.

Team sports worse

De Grace studied athletes in both individual and team sports and found that many athletes were abusing substances such as alcohol and cocaine to cope with their often-high-pressure situations.

But even if athletes steered clear of addiction during their time in sport, they remain at risk.

"It was when [athletes] lost their sport, for one reason or another, that seemed to be the trigger that really set off the abuse of substance and the addiction developed," she said.

Athletes who play on junior hockey teams can face peer pressure from teammates. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Further, de Grace said team sports can often mean a higher risk, as the added peer pressure from teammates can push athletes to try to fit in.

"In the people with team sports, it was typical they were introduced to substance abuse by their teammates — and often older teammates," she said. "It definitely was part of the culture."

Enforcers over-represented

In her small but qualitative study, de Grace said she had athletes of all types — from those who played recreationally to others who competed at high levels.

She also found different types of athletes within sports that struggled differently; hockey enforcers, whose main job is to fight and protect teammates, seemed to be over-represented at the treatment centre, de Grace said.

"They often didn't like fighting — they did it because they were good at it and it meant they stayed on the team and got recognition for it," she said.

"They often use alcohol and other drugs to deal not only with the physical pain … but also the emotional pain."

The constant fear of being cut from their team if they don't fight meant many enforcers had to force themselves to fight — even if they didn't want to do it.

De Grace said they often needed something to help them, with many of them turning to substance abuse.

"They had to do something to give themselves the courage to get on the ice, and then they had to cope with the emotional toll when they came off the ice," she said.

Wade Belak, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, all known for their bruising and fighting abilities in the NHL, died within a four-month span in 2011.

From left to right: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. All three were NHL enforcers. They died within a four-month span in in 2011.

Boogaard, 28, died in May 2011 after an accidental drug and alcohol overdose while he was recovering from a concussion.

Rypien, 27, died by suicide just months later in August. He suffered from depression.

Belak, 35, was found dead in his Toronto home 16 days after Rypien was found. Multiple sources confirmed to CBC News that he also died by suicide. His mother said he also suffered from depression.

This string of deaths of enforcers at the NHL level, raised questions about whether the role was a healthy one for athletes.

De Grace said Boogaard's story in particular was quite similar to stories she heard during her research.

"For some of them, once the addiction develops, that's just overrode everything," she said.

Richard Clune, currently a winger for the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, overcame an addiction to drugs and alcohol. He detailed his recovery in an op-ed for The Players' Tribune.

For others who recovered from addiction and are now sober, de Grace said often their first step is awareness and admittance.

"You get into this funny head space where you think you're not hurting yourself," she said. "[It's about] having an awareness that nothing makes them immune."