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Playing through the pain
Terry Pluto talks about college sports and pain pill addiction after two former U of A football players die from overdoses within four months.

Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
Former University of Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain developed an OxyContin addiction in 2008. He died of an overdose in 2011.
Courtesy of University of Akron
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Within a four-month span last year, two former University of Akron football players died after overdosing on the prescription painkiller OxyContin. A recent Plain Dealer article traced the years of abuse that began when quarterback Chris Jacquemain and lineman Tyler Campbell were teammates battling injuries in 2008. After stealing from the locker room, Jacquemain was kicked off the team. After failing a drug test, Campbell completed four weeks of a six-week rehab program so he could return to school. They both died two years later.

WKSU commentator Terry Pluto talks to Amanda Rabinowitz about the culture of college sports that makes athletes play through the pain.

Terry Pluto: Athletes and painkillers

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02/15/12                       Terry Pluto Transcript: painkillers           AR/MM

P: Especially in football because you only play once a week. If you’re playing baseball, basketball or volleyball, you’ve got a lot of meets, matches, and games. You have to miss that one Wednesday night game during the season. So what? There’s another one coming in a couple of days. Each college football game is like about 15 baseball games, if you do the math.

R: So that pressure is even greater.

P: Exactly.

R: With the one-year scholarships, there’s no guarantee that you’re even going to be back next year. So let alone getting an injury, you can’t afford it.

P: I don’t think that is (as much) at the forefront of their consciousness as it is, ‘I should be tough and play through pain.’ And when you’re an athlete, you’re not taught to think much beyond, ‘Get me through the next game.’ There is also a culture of this. ‘I’m tough enough. I can take the pill, get through, and then get off it.’

R: A lot of these athletes are saying these pills are readily available in the locker room and on campus. Are schools doing more about this problem?

P: They could do two things. One is, I know they drug test, but they could get really serious about testing. The problem is, the more you drug test and the more drugs you test for, the more expensive it is. I guess I would say the flipside is if you don’t, what are the consequences? They can drug test you for a whole bunch of things. Akron, after this, has put in some tougher drug testing standards. I know they test more often than the NCAA requires because a couple of coaches have told me that. The problem is the pill makes it seem somehow OK. This is not like crack; it’s not like meth; and it’s not like injecting yourself with heroin. It’s just a pill and it’s going to make you feel better.

R: How much do you think the schools should be responsible for helping these kids? Chris Jacquemain was kicked off the team and brought back. I know the school did some outreach to try and get him help. To what extent is it the school’s responsibility?

P: I don’t know, Amanda. My experience in jail ministry is that most people don’t want to change until they’re ready to change. I do think we could try to demonize [the Oxcontin], which is a good way. It’s not just something that should be handed out. In fact, it should be handed out rarely.

Again, I’m not a doctor, and there might be some guy out there listening, saying, ‘You’re full of it.’ Maybe I’m just speaking from a guy whose heart is just tired of seeing guys in jail on Oxycontin and other things they have done. Good middle class careers ruined by this stuff.

And when you’re a coach, here is the problem. You’ve got a couple of guys doing Oxycontin. You’ve got to win games. You’ve got to keep your job. You can’t run a drug rehab program on your team. Sam Rutigliano tried this—Sam who coached the Browns in the early 80s. It was called the Inner Circle. To this day, we don’t know all who was in this Inner Circle. A couple of players talked about having been in there, but Sam will never tell you who they are. It became a thing on the team where Sam was like being a drug counselor, even though he did bring in people to run it.

And when the team started to lose, it was like, ‘Well, Sam, is spending too much time with that.’ That is a crazy situation that coaches face.

I guess my thing is if you’re there, you have a scholarship to play football, and you’re coaching a team, you are already trying to make sure he gets his grades. And you’re trying to make sure he doesn’t get busted. And now you’re trying to make sure he doesn’t get on drugs or do these other things. The question is exactly how much of the loco parentis are you supposed to be? And I would argue that most people go through college without a coach looking after them to do anything. 

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