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Adderall: NFL's new, trendy PED
Adderall has moved from the college campuses into locker rooms, and professional sports are cracking down on its use.
The prescription drug that can sharpen focus and hone impulse control has become popular in NFL circles — at least seven players have received suspensions from the league office this season related to Adderall use.
And it appears some NFL players may be using, and abusing, Adderall just as some high school and college students do: by relying on it as a chemical aid to quickly help them cram and disseminate reams of complex information.
The difference isn’t all that striking, some psychologists say. Pulling an all-nighter to finish a complicated term paper can be equated to a player being forced to quickly recognize and react to the coverage on an NFL playing field.
To that end, “I think (Adderall) offers a tremendous benefit,” said Doug Gardner, a sports psychologist based in the San Francisco Bay Area who has worked with NFL and MLB teams. “Players often struggle in college and in the NFL because they have trouble digesting the information they need to use on the field.
“So, they look for a tiny pill or anything else that can help them focus and study better. That can make up for a lack of studying skills they didn’t develop early in life.”
As far as Adderall being recognized as a focus aid during a game, Bay Area Lab Co-Operative founder Victor Conte told FOXSports.com that drugs like Adderall — despite little literature to back up the effectiveness of such drugs in sports — are indeed considered performance-enhancing.
During his heyday at BALCO, before his facility was raided by federal authorities nearly a decade ago, Conte widely recommended another prescription stimulant — the narcolepsy drug Modafinil — to his elite athlete clientele.
“The players wouldn’t be taking (Adderall) if they didn't think it gave them some sort of advantage,'' Conte said. “It helps with reaction time, and I know football players who have taken it. I know a lot of them.”
Recent positives linked to Adderall seem to back that up. This week, New England Patriots defensive lineman Jermaine Cunningham became at least the seventh NFL player to cite Adderall as the reason for violating the league’s drug policy since the start of training camp.
The others included Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Eric Wright; New York Giants safeties Tyler Sash and Will Hill; New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (a member of the Bucs at the time of the positive test); Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Joe Hawley; and Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden. Two Seattle Seahawks players — cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner — are both appealing four-game suspensions by the NFL, denying they ingested the banned drug.
Per the terms of the collectively bargained drug agreement between the NFL and the players union, the NFL is not allowed to disclose the type of substance that results in a positive test. Given that, there is the possibility that players facing a drug-related suspension may be copping to Adderall use, rather than concede the punishment stems from a steroid or narcotic. The stigma of such a suspension may be less damaging.
“Honestly, I think Adderall is an excuse,” said former Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder. “Now, if you get busted, you just say it’s Adderall and it goes under the rug. The league can’t come out and correct you.
“It’s better than coming out and saying you did steroids. It’s kind of like getting busted for cocaine, but telling your grandma it was marijuana. Marijuana is more socially acceptable.”
Adolpho Birch, the NFL senior vice president of law and labor, said Wednesday that a player would only come up positive for an amphetamine during league-administered drug testing — not for Adderall specifically. Birch added that, among more than 20 players who ran afoul of the league’s drug policy this year, there has been an uptick in amphetamine positives.
“It’s not a secret that it’s a societal trend,” Birch said. “We are starting to see some effects of that within our league.”
None of these players would have been suspended if they had a legitimate, clinical need for Adderall, which often is prescribed to children and adults with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The NFL Players Association is in the midst of alerting its membership about the need to file for a therapeutic use exemption, or a TUE, to avoid the four-game bans that come with a positive test for Adderall without such a waiver.
While players have increasingly turned to Adderall to help sharpen their game focus, Gardner said the drug is no panacea as a study aid. Some players may gain no benefit at all.
“I was asked to evaluate one tight end to see how well he’d fit in with a team,” Gardner said. “(The player) told me, ‘I didn’t do much learning in college.’ It soon became clear that he was illiterate.
“Coaches in the NFL expect the players to be able to take in the information on their own, so they don’t spend a lot of time teaching players how to learn. These guys have the athletic skills, but not always the academic rigor in their backgrounds that will make them successful.”
Gardner said that Adderall can become a crutch and that the drug is far from benign. It’s listed as a Schedule II drug by the US Drug Enforcement Administration for its stimulant and addictive properties, and Adderall can cause sudden death via heart attack, especially for adults with heart conditions.
Moreover, New York internist Dr. Gary Wadler said Adderall “can mask pain and heighten aggressiveness.” It’s the key reason he believes the drug should be put on the same level as other banned substances, such as steroids and human growth hormone, by sports leagues and doping authorities.
“The only drug people seem to get worked up over is testosterone,” said Wadler, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) Prohibited List and Methods subcommittee. “There is no question that stimulants should be monitored.”
Before the recent spate of positives in the NFL, “uppers” were thought to be more of a problem in Major League Baseball. The use of “greenies” — energy-boosting amphetamines — first came to the public’s attention with the release of the 1970 book “Ball Four,” written by former major-league pitcher Jim Bouton.
The National Hockey League and even NASCAR — driver A.J. Allmendinger was suspended this season after he tested positive for a substance he said was Adderall — have experienced issues with their athletes and amphetamines.
When MLB began to crack down on the use of amphetamines before the 2006 season by enforcing a 25-game suspension for a first offense, players in that sport began gravitating toward Adderall. The number of therapeutic-use exemptions in baseball jumped from 28 in 2006 to more than 100 in each season since, according to figures provided by MLB.
Unlike the NFL, experts see Adderall use in baseball attributed more to its effect as stimulant to combat a long, 162-game season. There were 105 MLB exemptions approved in 2011, a usage rate, about 8.75 percent, that is about double than the general adult population, about 4 percent to 5 percent.
The NFL does not disclose how many of its players have exemptions for Adderall, although Birch said the drug’s use in the NFL is lower than the overall male population within the same age group. A player not only has to have a valid diagnosis for ADD or ADHD along with a prescription for Adderall, but the TUE filed by the player needs the approval for football’s independent administrator.
Crowder said he doesn’t need statistics to show that Adderall could be overused in the NFL.
“I played six years with a struggling team, and I must have had 400 different teammates,” Crowder said. “Only one of them needed to be on Adderall. If you are a cornerback in the NFL and you have to cover (Houston Texans receiver) Andre Johnson, wouldn’t you want something that will keep you focused and calm you down?
"Maybe I should have taken it when I played.”