Psyched Online

Stop Enabling and Help Athletes Abusing Substances

by Paul Schienberg, Ph.D. and Miguel Humara, Ph.D.

The use of drugs and alcohol by professional athletes has become an all too common occurrence. A lthough attempts are made to help the individual receive treatment, often they fall short of their mark and the athlete is allowed to continue down the path of addiction. Intervention needs to be taken seriously by family members, friends and the professional organization in order for it to be effective. However, the “win at all costs” mentality often results in people turning the other way when faced with obvious signs of substance (click here for an article on identification). This is often referred to as enabling and can be quite damaging to the individual since the earlier treatment is received, the grater the chance of maintaining a substance free life-style. While the motivations for drug use vary from athlete to athlete, the pattern of enabling needs to be stopped before treatment can begin.

Case Illustrations

Daryl Strawberry played right field for the New York Mets. He was part of the World Championship team in 1986. His talents were impossible to ignore. The only questions seemed to be how many records he would break over the course of his playing career. He and his teammate, Dwight Gooden (pitcher), were going to be the foundation of a dynasty. Not long after the Championship season both players got seriously involved with substance abuse. Daryl, Dwight, and the Mets began to spiral into the darkness of addiction. To date, Daryl’s life has almost completely fallen apart. He is presently behind bars for violating parole. He has been in and out of various rehabilitation programs. Finally, he decided that the only way he could stop using was to be in jail. His story is filled with anecdotal information that shows how difficult it is to break clear of the vicious cycle of abuse. Especially obvious, in his case, is the role of family in supporting addictive behavior. Not one of his family stepped in and confronted Daryl because he was taking care of everyone. Addiction is often spoken of as a family disease … not only the biological family but also the family of a sports team that enable an athlete to continue using.

John Daly is a professional golfer. He could hit a tee shot further than anyone. He broke upon the PGA tour with great fanfare. Early victories made him an instant celebrity. It looked for a moment as if no one and nothing could possibly beat him. John had won a major tournament which qualified him to play in the three other majors for that year. He seemed invincible. But, everyone was wrong. Alcohol was beating him. Before you could even join his fan club, he had entered a rehab. During his treatment stay, he missed out on one major and was banned from another. In addition to alcohol, he was a totally devoted cigarette smoker. You would almost never see him hitting a golf ball without one in his mouth. He was very over weight and clearly had a problem with over eating also. As long as John could hit a golf ball so far, everyone over-looked his various addictions. He was like a cult figure. Crowds would cheer. But, he was killing himself. He is back on tour today and it is unclear whether he has broken with the substance abuse history. It is a problem that just doesn’t completely go away. It is a life time commitment to change one’s life. Regardless of whether your statue in life, substance abuse problems is like gravity … no one is so powerful that they can just will away the effects, specially when management and fans are enabling them.

A couple of weeks ago, Bob Hayes died as a result of prolonged alcohol and drug abuse. Readers may not remember him but back in the 1960’s, he was designated as “the world’s fastest human.” This honor was given to the man who could win the 60 and 100 yard dash in the Olympics. Bob did just that. He was then drafted by the Dallas Cowboys as a wide receiver. No one thought he could make the transition from tack and field to football. But, he did and did it big time. Football teams were forced to create different defenses in order to stop him. Once he caught the ball, there was no stopping him from getting to the end zone. There was only one thing that did stop Bob from his goals in life … substance abuse. His feelings of invincibleness got the better of him. Also, everyone around him thought he was invincible. They needed to believe in someone who could be so powerful and enabled him to continue his use.

These three examples clearly show that enabling behavior form individuals in an athlete’s life can have a significant negative impact on the individual’s problem. Once an athlete has been identified as having a substance-abuse problem, treatment steps should be taken immediately. This is necessary to increase the likelihood of success. Although friends, family, and professional organizations believe that they are doing the right thing letting the individual try to help himself, they are just prolonging his or her pain. Established treatments can make a significant change in an individual’s life and can in the long run be more “cost-effective” then simply letting the problem continue.


&nbspThe goals of this initial phase are for the athlete to acknowledge the possibility of having this problem. Different types of treatment approaches are discussed and the impacts upon family, athletic career and team should be discussed. If severe enough, it is often necessary for an athlete who has substance abuse problems to be removed from the environment so that the recovery process can begin. If detoxification is necessary, inpatient programs provide the environment to monitor withdrawal symptoms and medical assistance. These programs last between 4 – 6 weeks while the person is participating in group and individual psychotherapy. Alcoholics Anonymous is often introduced during the in-patient stay. Family members are usually involved in the treatment process by attending family treatment and education on the important issues of alcohol and drug abuse. Sometimes, recommendations are made to attend Al-Anon meetings – a 12 step program for the addict’s significant others.

When an athlete is released from in-patient treatment, the aftercare phase of treatment begins. Most people think that since the athlete has been clean for a month that the addiction problem has been resolved. The fact of the matter is that the hardest part is now coming. All too often, the athlete is returned to the same environment that contributed to the cycle of substance abuse. Specifically, the athlete returns to the competition that created pressures and stress that motivated the abuse. The aftercare phase of treatment usually lasts between 3 months and 2 years. Serious consideration should be given to keeping the athlete out of participation in sport competition for a good deal of this time. Everyone is going to be under pressure to get the athlete back performing earlier rather than later. The focus of aftercare is get a person re-adjusted to contact with the family, social network, occupation and the team. Attention should be given to teammates who may not know how to respond to the returning athlete. Facilitation of normal communications and honest disclosure can be taught by the coach.

It is suggested that outpatient treatment be continued indefinitely. This can occur while participation in the athlete participates in sports, family and personal pursuits. This type of treatment is only successful if the person stays clear of all alcohol and drug abuse. It needs to be understood at the deepest level possible that substance abuse involves distorted thinking and an intolerance of emotions. Just because the athlete is not using does not mean the thinking is corrected and emotions are being handled effectively. In fact, it is often quite the contrary. The same painful thinking and emotions are operating, but, now, there is no substance to numb them out. It takes great courage and persistence to deal with this aspect of treatment. If this does not occur, there is a great likelihood of going back to alcohol and drug abuse. Just ask Daryl Strawberry and John Daly! It’s too late to ask Bob Hayes.

&nbspThere are a number of specific factors that should be considered by the therapist and client in the treatment of a substance-abusing athlete. The effect of the clash of self-images between that of the healthy athlete and the sick patient should be explored. The impact of public exposure on the treatment process should be kept in the forefront of everyone’s mind. Also, the effect of organization policy on treatment needs to be assessed. Exercise can either hamper or enhance treatment outcome for an athlete.


&nbspA couple of days ago it was revealed by a sports reporter that one of the Mets minor league players was video taped smoking marijuana. The Mets organization might light of it and tried to smooth over the story. The reporter was concerned that the entire team could be infected with this problem. He was on a track that makes perfect sense. It would have sent a more productive message to the athletes if the organization did respond with concern for the teammates instead of enabling him. Even after Daryl’s demise, it could be asked what has the Mets organization learned? They maybe more concerned about the team’s image than the health of their athletes. It doesn’t make much sense – even from a monetary point of view. They invest tremendous amounts of money developing athletes. It wouldn’t take much more money to protect their investment. This problem doesn’t just go away by wishing, denying, or acting dumb. Knowledge and sensitivity can bring us all to a healthy way of interceding.