When DeAndre Levy suffered a hip injury last August that eventually required season-ending surgery, the deep-thinking Detroit Lions linebacker made a conscious decision to rehab himself back to good health without the use of opioid pain-killing pills that are commonly prescribed in the NFL.
Levy, like most players, had used such pills at the recommendation of team doctors in the past.
But now entering his eighth season with the Lions, Levy said his mindset has changed when it comes to dealing with injuries and the general soreness that goes with playing the game.
“I stay away from pills,” Levy told the Free Press after an Organized Team Activity practice last month.
“That’s a bigger issue, but I try to stay away from them,” Levy said. “It’s too easy to prescribe. Painkillers. Toradol. It’s just putting a Band-Aid on something, but we’re potentially developing a bigger issue for players when they’re done.”
The NFL has come under scrutiny for its use of opioid pain-killers in recent years.
In 2014, more than 1,300 former players filed a class-action lawsuit against the league for the way teams used highly-addictive medicines such as Toradol, Vicodin and Percocet. The same year, representatives from the Drug Enforcement Agency conducted surprise checks on NFL teams, including the Lions, to make sure they were administering and caring for prescriptions drugs the right way.
Several former players have admitted to being addicted to pills or been arrested for illegally possessing large amounts of prescription drugs over the years.
And more recently, Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe has shined light on the issue by advocating for the use of medical marijuana as a substitute for opioid drugs.
“I think it’s something that needs to be addressed,” Levy said. “I know players, former, current and it was a time where it was very, very easy to get as many painkillers as you needed, as many sleeping pills as you needed. And if we’re talking about the health of our players, past their playing career, I think it’s definitely something that needs to at least be acknowledged and something looked into as there’s a lot of viable and growing body of research supporting it.”
Levy has been outspoken on a number of social issues since his injury, taking aim at the NFL for the way it’s handled concussions and penning an essay for The Players Tribune on sexual assault and the objectification of women.
He said last month that “there’s no trust” left between players and the league, and that players need to take more of an interest in matters of their own health.
“You can put zero trust in them, so us as players, it’s responsible,” Levy said. “We build the game up. We make the game what it is, people come see us play so we have a responsibility to voice our issues. People come to games to look at us, they listen to us. They don’t come to listen to Jerry Jones, they come to listen to the players on the field.”
Monroe has been out front when it comes to the use of medical marijuana, which is currently prohibited in the NFL despite being legal in 24 states, including Michigan, and the District of Columbia.
Players can be fined or suspended if they test positive for marijuana, though most are subjected to just one offseason test for recreational drugs per year.
Monroe criticized the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell for not making a distinction between the medical and recreational use of marijuana, and not supporting more research to see what impact it can have on treating concussions.
He also called on players to speak out about the topic, which has proven tricky.
Several Lions players declined comment on the medical marijuana debate, though many, like Levy, said they’re worried about the use of opioids in the sport.
“Eugene’s very vocal about it,” guard Geoff Schwartz said. “It’s not talked about much in the locker room. I think it’s a personal thing. You don’t know what someone’s doing at home. You’ve got to hope they’re doing the right thing.”
Schwartz said he was prescribed an opioid pain-killer after he broke his leg late last season with the New York Giants, but that he returned part of his prescription to the team once his pain had subsided.
“I had major trauma,” Schwartz said. “I had to get something for the pain. It’s more, I used it more just to sleep at night, but then when I got to a certain point where I was fine I just, I’m done with them. I have good self control that way. I can see where they’re addicting, but I’ve been pretty fortunate to just kind of be able to put them off to the side.”
Safety Don Carey, a former teammate of Monroe’s in Jacksonville, said he relies on the input of team doctors and physicians when it comes to using opioid medicines to treat injuries.
Carey said he doesn’t support Monroe’s stance on medical marijuana, but that “a more holistic approach” to managing pain might be best for NFL players.
“That’s something we can do with research and testing and see what can happen,” Carey said. “But like I said, I’m still not an advocate for it. If that’s something they want to try push, good luck to them.”
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