SMITHY: Prescription drugs a big problem in the NRL

Brian Smith Columnist

By , Brian Smith is a Roar Expert


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    A packet of Nurofen Plus. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

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    No one could have missed the turmoil created in the past week by the revelations and accusations of gross misconduct in the sports world.

    The NRL season is likely to be eventful as a result. As will many other sports.

    But one of the issues that’s possibly affecting a few guys in your club has not even had a mention.

    Maybe it’s not created any news because its a government regulation problem and a societal epidemic in some people’s view.

    All NRL players are expected, and expect to, train and play through pain. What most of us don’t think about is the rest of the pain they deal with.

    For some significant periods of every footballer’s life, he is going to live with pain constantly. Almost every player has to deal with reconstructive surgery of a knee or shoulder or ankle, and in many cases, multiples of each.

    Post every match, most guys go through the “minor” injury grind of looking after corks, strains and sprains on top of physical and mental and sometimes emotional exhaustion.

    That’s a lot of pain to be dealing, with and like most people in today’s society, they look for the shortest way to an immediate solution.

    Anti inflammatories, painkillers and sleeping pills provide it! The “best” of these pharmaceutical drugs require a prescription from a doctor, so in the beginning it’s the club doctor who deals with this important hazard of the job for the player.

    In the past, some club doctors may have been naive or unaware of the potential problems associated with misuse and lack of understanding by players of the dangers around prescription drugs.

    Thankfully, there has been enough alarm bells ringing throughout clubs to cause a change in the way that part of players’ medical requirements are handled by clubs.

    But this problem goes much wider, as most parents and the public generally would be aware.

    The misuse of these drugs has found its way through addictive behaviours to combinations with other substances and drinks (alcoholic and non alcoholic) to get a “buzz” or high without risking being caught out in the drug testing programmes of WADA or in-house club testing because most are not prohibited.

    Some guys apparently think this is really clever as they are outsmarting the system.

    It’s not hard to work out who is being outsmarted long term.

    So why worry if it’s not a prohibited drug?

    Well, if you have ever dealt with someone who has developed an addiction to these mind and body altering situations, you will know.

    Even the regular use of some prescription drugs is cause for concern on a number of levels, not the least of which is consistent high performance in physical and mental preparation and performance on match day.

    The use of anti inflammatories has led to serious health issues in players I have dealt with.

    One typical player decided, as players tend to do, that if he took the recommended dosage and was LIKELY be fit for the next weekend’s playoff game, then if he took double the dose he would be CERTAIN of taking his place in the team.

    A recurrence of the cork in the playoff game meant it was a race again for the next week’s bigger match, so up went the self designed dosage.

    This may have been the beginning of the intestinal gastric irritations and inflammation issues he has suffered throughout his life since.

    In his 40s now, he has been hospitalised a number of times with bleeding issues from colitis. He needs to control his diet very carefully to live a close to normal life.

    I feel very responsible for this and disappointed that we, as a club, did not deal with this appropriately.

    Some of those players who get in the habit of self-medicating through use of stronger prescription drugs (“benzos”?) can get into a hurdy gurdy situation very quickly, particularly post surgery where it’s normal practice to receive these from our medicos to get us through that critical period of immense pain.

    Some of it is self-inflicted or worsened, of course, through not observing the prescribed dosage and ignoring important directions such as the harmful effects of alcohol if consumed with the drug.

    Finding it difficult to sleep because of physical pain is natural and can be dealt with in alternate ways. Finding it difficult to sleep through an addiction to the drugs is scary.

    It’s also almost completely contradictory in its design to the training programme your club’s staff is implementing to get that few extra percentage points in power and speed and agility.

    Not to mention the clear headedness required to perform on the field under pressure from a full week of proper sleep and nutrition.

    Sleeping some of the day to recover from big night out is one thing, but sleeping with the assistance of drugs in the afternoon and into the night, but then being awake for the rest of the night is the hurdy gurdy to poor or inconsistent performance.

    At its worst, where this goes on for an extended period, it can lead to diminished emotions, leaving a guy who is a shell of the young man living the dream.

    Purely from my coaching point of view, and I would imagine other coaches too, it just doesn’t make sense for the footy club and all its resources to be focussed on a guy who is undoing it all in his hours away from the club.

    Almost everything we offer is about improving the physical and mental tools our guys have.

    Specifically, it’s about speed and precision while the major effect these prescription drugs have is slowing the body’s systems down.

    It makes no sense to me.

    These are not performance enhancing issues, but performance detracting. At its most minor levels these drugs are robbing the player of his best opportunity to do well in a very competitive sport where your mind and body are your major tools of trade.

    But for me you can forget the coaching perspective! There are way too many personal issues involved here for those others to really rate at all. What about the health and welfare issues.

    These are young and often impressionable young guys in a highly exposed and very demanding world for which most have little or no preparation from modest and unassuming backgrounds.

    Protecting those guys from addictive and harmful drugs that appear to be safe because you get them from “the doc” or the local pharmacy is a trap I feel our whole sport, and perhaps society, should be addressing stringently.

    Thankfully, I believe that is beginning to happen in more and more footy clubs in recent months.

    Brian Smith
    Brian Smith

    Brian Smith is a former player with St. George and South Sydney and first grade coach at Illawarra, St. George Dragons, Bradford Bulls, Parramatta, the Knights and the Roosters. He has taken teams to the NRL Grand Final on four occasions. He is a weekly columnist on The Roar, but to read more of his writing on rugby league, check out his website, Smithy Speaks.

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