OGDEN — College and high school athletes can be uniquely at risk of opioid addiction, according to substance use experts, but local officials say their institutions are well equipped to guard against abuses.
Students who participated in high school athletics and used prescribed opioids because of injuries were found to have about a 40% greater chance later in life of misusing the substances, said Dr. Liz Joy, referring to a 2015 study published by the National Institutes of Health.
Further, adolescents’ still-growing brains “put them at a greater risk for developing opioid use disorder,” said Joy, of Salt Lake City, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
Utahns ages 18 to 24 represented 7.6% of prescription opioid overdose deaths in 2015-17, Utah Department of Health data shows. In 2017, there were 456 opioid deaths statewide.
However, whether any of the deaths were of athletes was not tracked.
“But the story comes up over and over again: ‘I was in sports for school and started using this,’” said Meghan Balough, the department’s violence and injury prevention epidemiologist.
“Definitely I think there are areas we need to do more research on,” Balough said. “Just what’s happening to these younger people whose lives are ending in overdose death?”
PROGRAMS FOR UNIVERSITY ATHLETES
At Weber State University, a substance abuse education program for athletes has been in force for more than 30 years.
It spells out ongoing education, the availability of counseling, describes random drug testing protocols and details consequences for violations.
“We do recognize that athletics is a very risky time in the life of an athlete, when they may make choices and have demands placed on them,” said Joel Bass, assistant athletic director for sports medicine. “We have our heads up and watch for it and try to keep our athletes as healthy as they possibly can be.”
Bass said there rarely are positive opioid test results at Weber.
“I can think of one in the last year,” he said. “Our policy is that opioids and athletics do not mix. The only time opioids would be allowed would be the first few days postsurgery.”
Most violations, perhaps a few each year, are due to marijuana use, Bass said. Athletes who come from states where marijuana use is legal may be a little more likely to violate, he said.
According to the NCAA’s handbook for athletic trainers, Division I football players “are more likely to misuse non-prescription pain medication, and while the effects may not be life threatening, this may serve as a warning sign for these student-athletes seeking prescription pain medication.”
And Joy said one study indicated that athletes who reported misusing or abusing drugs received their opioids from “not only doctors but also teammates, coaches, athletic trainers and family members.”
On the Weber State campus as a whole, university officials say any opioid-related problems are not tracked, other than by the WSU Police Department.
The Standard-Examiner filed a public records request with the department seeking data on drug-related incidents involving student-athletes in the past decade.
The department “has no way to search for such records except by hand searching records and undergoing a laborious process to determine if a person cited for drug charges is a university athlete,” the university responded, requested an estimated $3,000 for the task.
Athletic trainers are forbidden from handling prescription medication for athletes, per athletic department policy.
Weber State’s team doctors are volunteers under a contract with Intermountain Healthcare. The medical company receives advertising considerations in return.
Joy said those doctors and other Intermountain physicians have learned about alternatives to opioids, such as nonnarcotic medications and even acupuncture. They also use electronic health records to “limit the amount of pills we can dispense at any given time.”
“We are trying to make it easy for people to do the right thing,” she said.
Intermountain doctors reduced opioid prescriptions by 6 million pills in 2018, spokesman Brad Gillman said.
PUBLIC SCHOOLS: NO ATHLETICS-SPECIFIC DRUG POLICIES
In Northern Utah’s public schools, local districts have drug abuse prevention programs and policies that govern the dispensing of medication to students.
The dispensing regulations cover students in general and offer no specifics about athletes.
“Our athletics staff follows the same protocols listed in our board policy for students,” said Ogden School District spokesman Jer Bates.
In the Ogden, Weber and Davis districts, dispensing of medications are governed by individual plans, but opioids are not included.
“There would not be any situation where we would ever administer narcotics,” Weber School District spokesman Lane Findlay said.
In the Davis School District, policy specifies that qualified school personnel are, however, allowed to administer a drug overdose rescue drug to a student in an emergency.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has distributed a poster in high schools urging student-athletes to be mindful of opioid risks.
“Unfortunately, high school student-athletes can be especially vulnerable to prescription painkiller misuse,” the DEA said in a statement accompanying the poster.
From 1999 to 2016, more than 350,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Utah has the seventh highest drug overdose rate and loses six people a week.
Former Weber State football player Derek Johnson suffered severe injuries in a 2007 game, putting him on a path of opioid addiction that threatened his life.
He said he endured numerous surgeries and became addicted to prescription opioids and later turned to heroin after the prescriptions ran out, according to a Weber State Alumni Magazine report in 2018.
Bass, who has been at Weber since 1991, said the substance abuse education program has served athletes well over the years.
“I think we are lucky at Weber State with the caliber of athletes and individuals we have,” Bass said. “I’m sure there are other schools with challenges probably greater than ours.
“We have our challenges and try to head them off before they happen and deal with them when they do.”