The buried affliction

Sports with Sophie

It’s the summer of 1970 in San Diego. The Pirates are playing the Padres, and Dock Ellis is on the mound to pitch for Pittsburgh. That day, he leads his team to defeat San Diego 2-0 in a no-hitter. Years later, he admits to being on acid during the game. Today, the “LSD No-No” is one of the most celebrated sports tales ever.

Abby Wambach’s memoir, dubbed “Forward,” which came out Tuesday, is important for a panoply of reasons. It tackles the struggle of being a lesbian in professional sports, the pressure that comes with being called the best ever and, significantly, the realities of dealing with drug and alcohol abuse throughout. Wambach is by no means the first athlete to grapple with these issues, but her memoir marks a moment of candidness that is entirely new.

Upon her DUI arrest in April, Wambach confessed to abusing drugs and alcohol throughout her career — specifically vodka, along with Vicodin, Ambien and Adderall. She said “this isn’t just something that snuck up on me when I retired from soccer. This is something that I’ve been dealing with for years now.”

And we never knew. But it’s something that countless athletes have also dealt with. Some of these stories are laughed at, or revered as legendary performances, like Ellis’. But his drug and alcohol use was more than that one day, and glorifying his continuous plight as if it was is deeply problematic. Ellis began drinking heavily in high school and picked up other drugs as he grew older — taking five to 12 Dexamyl capsules before pitching. His drug use wasn’t a one-game pick-me-up, it was a lifelong addiction, and he went to rehab in 1980 for it.

But no one remembers it like that. No one talks about it. They merely bring up his miraculous “LSD No-No,” not the constant drug use that controlled his life.

Diego Maradona, one of the best soccer players of all time, battled a severe cocaine addiction from the 1980s until 2004 and was hospitalized for his drug and alcohol abuse. Maradona believes that his career would have been much more prosperous if not for the drugs he was so dependent on. But that wasn’t an option — his addiction consumed his life, all while he was competing at the world’s highest level.

The list goes on: Theoren Fleury (hockey), Darryl Strawberry (baseball), Josh Hamilton (baseball), Todd Marinovich (football), Lawrence Taylor (football) — and that’s only the beginning. These issues also do not include performance-enhancing drugs or steroids — they are almost exclusively psychoactive “uppers,” such as cocaine,amphetamines or opiates like painkillers and alcohol. PEDs and steroids, which are used to improve one’s athletic abilities, pose their own issues but are less troubling than the rampant addiction that plagues many athletes both on and off the field.

Some of the effects of stimulants include increased euphoria, talkativeness and short- or long-term bumps in energy. These effects could potentially help an athlete, providing them with a boost that could allow them to push their bodies further. But sometimes, they don’t.

So, then, if it won’t necessarily increase one’s ability, why do it? Athletes, specially high-caliber ones, experience rates of adrenaline during competition that can increase their strength, stamina and senses along with hindering their feeling of pain. This is in many ways similar to taking a stimulant — a sense of invincibility or the belief that one can do anything. Perhaps, then, athletes abuse these drugs to mimic the feelings they get from playing or to continue that euphoria even while off the field.

Or, perhaps, what it takes to become one of the best is a personality fueled by addiction — addiction to hard work, accolades or adrenaline. This personality could make one wildly successful but also more susceptible to drugs and alcohol.

Regardless of the reasons, though, Wambach and others have made one thing clear: This issue is real and pervasive in the sporting world, even if we can’t see it. Instances of DUI and possession arrests are too common to turn away from any longer. But solutions that emphasize punishment are clearly not working — they create an environment where the athletes who abuse drugs the most are the ones best at hiding it — and we must ask ourselves how to solve the issue of addiction without vilifying those who fall victim to it.

Sophie Goethals writes the column about social issues in the world of sports and their potential ramifications. Contact her at [email protected]