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SMITHY: Prescription drugs a big problem in the NRL

Brian Smith Columnist

By Brian Smith, 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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    The Crowd Says (9)

    • February 14th 2013 @ 4:25am
      AndyMack said | February 14th 2013 @ 4:25am | ! Report

      Hi Brian

      The issue of prescription drugs goes beyond someone getting a high or a buzz, as you say.

      Our society seems to view all prescription drugs as good, even though they are proven to cause harm in so many cases. As usual, our sports are a representation of what occurs in our society. Until a few doctors are held to account on this issue, we will always be plagued by this.

      I know this is a sports website, but for those interested, please read ben goldacre’s bad science website, shows the issues with drugs being issued by doctors without any real idea of what they are doing….

      • February 14th 2013 @ 11:32am
        cos79 said | February 14th 2013 @ 11:32am | ! Report

        well said.

        Crazy miss use and over use of anti biotics (particularily in India where they are over the counter) will lead to diseases which can’t be treated.

    • Roar Rookie

      February 14th 2013 @ 7:32am
      Chris Hardiman said | February 14th 2013 @ 7:32am | ! Report

      These fellas are playing way too many games I reckon. Trial games , 26 rounds, finals, rep footy for some. I don’t thinks the rewards are great enough for price players bodies have to pay.

      • February 14th 2013 @ 8:40am
        turbodewd said | February 14th 2013 @ 8:40am | ! Report

        Agreed. Season is too long. A player could play 24 rounds, ANZAC test, SOO x 3, All Star Game, 4 post season game. Further tests.

        33 games potentially!

        In the NFL they play 16 + maybe max 3 post season.

        • February 14th 2013 @ 2:20pm
          Captain Obvious said | February 14th 2013 @ 2:20pm | ! Report

          Not quite.

          An NFL season comprises four preseason games and 16 regular season games, plus a bye. A Superbowl team will play three or four postseason games, depending on whether they earn a bye in the Wild Card round.

          So there’s a potential of playing in 24 games. Still less than an NRL season though…

    • February 14th 2013 @ 9:41am
      Sailosi said | February 14th 2013 @ 9:41am | ! Report

      I agree about season length. I remember in 2002 I think it was, Serge Betson, the French flanker played 26 club games with Biarritz, 2 finals games, 7 European cup games, 5 Six Nations matches and 3 test matches for a total 43 games in 45 weeks. After that I think the European players association said that no player can play more than 35 games in a calendar year. Maybe the NRL players association need a clause like this. L

      Comment left via The Roar’s iPhone app. Download it now [].

    • February 14th 2013 @ 11:31am
      Maroon Blood said | February 14th 2013 @ 11:31am | ! Report

      Great article Brian, as someone who has lost a close relative to prescription medication overdose, it is refreshing to see someone flag what is one of the great hidden drug problems in our society. Although initial prescription of pain killers, anti-depressants and the like and the adherance to the recommended doses presents no problem it is the insidious addiction to these drugs, their abuse and the frightening ease by which they can then be obtained that poses the great problem. Initiatives like the Prescription Shopping Program has taken some steps to curb the all-to-common practice of Doctor Shopping or Double Dosing but this only flags those that are blatantly abusing the system.
      It is a sad state of affairs that and strong measures to curb this huge national drug problem is minimal at best so it is great to see someone attempting to raise awareness. Onya Brian.

    • February 14th 2013 @ 2:37pm
      eagleJack said | February 14th 2013 @ 2:37pm | ! Report

      Nice article Brian.

      I find it incredible how differently people treat those who abuse prescription drugs due to the fact they are legal. An example of this was the Maroons camp in 2009 mixing stillnox with Red Bull on a night out (and there are dozens of other cases this is just the one that first came to mind). Compare this to Andrew Johns who experimented with recreational drugs throughout his career.

      As far as I can tell both are used as a form of escapism, to get high and both are performance depleting. Prescription drugs when used in an inappropriate manner such as this can do irreparable damage to your body. Both can be lethal.

      So what’s the difference? Not a lot I’d suggest. Yet Johns was lambasted in the media and is still labelled a drug cheat by many. The other episode was written off as the boys having fun in a legal manner. It was a one-off I remember hearing (yeah cause they’d try something like this for the first time just before an Origin match).

      My feeling is that both parties are abusing drugs. And in the process doing an extraordinary amount of damage to their bodies.

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2013 @ 11:41pm
      Bazzio said | February 14th 2013 @ 11:41pm | ! Report

      So exactly who gives players the impression that if they don’t line up to play 1st’s every week they might be dropped for being ‘injury prone’ Smiffy?

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