How to Report on Athletes with Addiction Issues
Drug addiction is an issue that plagues millions of communities worldwide, and the professional sports community is no different. Many professional athletes have had issues with substance abuse and addiction, including former NHL player Theo Fleury, NBA player Lamar Odom, MLB player Josh Hamilton, and NFL player Todd Marinovich, among others.
Many professional sports stars were born and raised in an environment separate from the world of professional sports, and many suffer from addiction issues stemming from their lives before the spotlight. Others have addiction issues stemming from the professional sports lifestyle. No matter what their story is, it’s important to report on these stories in a professional and sensitive manner.
In order to report on addiction, it’s important to understand addiction.
Addiction is a disease affecting the communication and pleasure centers of the brain. The causes of addiction have been debated, but many factors seem to take part in the addictive nature of one person or another. Biology, development, and environment are all factors that determine addictive behaviors.
Once someone is addicted to a substance, the issue is not willpower in order to stop, the chemical makeup of these substances rewires the brain so that it is confused and has a hard time connecting substance abuse with something negative. Understanding addiction will help you to have perspective and report on an athlete’s battle with it in a more educated way.
Holding the athlete accountable is another aspect to reporting about their drug or alcohol addiction that is important.
Accountability is an important factor in recovery and while it’s important to understand why someone can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, it’s also important not to report on their status as an addict in a way that excuses their poor behavior. Holding athletes accountable is a common issue among athletes at every level of their careers. Those in the spotlight in general tend to have an easier go in terms of discipline when committing a crime, and athletes tend to fall under that umbrella.
The importance of accountability comes into play when an athlete struggling with addiction commits a crime, fails a drug test required by their professional sports league, etc., but reporters should take great care in reporting on addiction issues without incorporating their opinion on their addiction – unless, of course, it’s a column or an opinion piece.
It’s a fine line to walk, but reporting the facts on addiction and the mistakes made as a result can hold the athlete accountable without utilizing judgement to do so.
These types of news stories are headline grabbers. Everyone remembers the, “Lamar Odom Found Unconscious in Nevada Brothel,” headline when the news was released. It’s a story that absolutely needs to be reported on, but sensitivity shouldn’t be thrown out the window because the person is an athlete and has committed a crime. It’s another instance of balancing judgement and accountability, but in cases like Odom where they were in critical condition, it’s important to remember the mortality of the athlete and be respectful of their family and friends who may be affected by their condition and how you report on it.
An athlete battling addiction who has committed a crime, has a health issue as a result, or is seeking recovery is a riveting story in itself, so there’s no reason to cloud the facts of those stories with any insensitive reporting.
In instances like Johnny Manziel and his struggles with substance abuse, it can be difficult not to become frustrated in reporting the issues of a young player with so much talent that he seems to be wasting by holding onto his addiction. In a news reporting atmosphere, it’s important to be sensitive to the health issue that addiction is while not excusing his behavior.
There are many different reporting mediums to share your thoughts on young athletes with addiction issues, or athletes who wasted their shot, but news reporting isn’t the place to do it. The reader will read the facts of his story and come up with a conclusion on their own without you pushing them in that direction.
Doping vs Addiction
An athlete using performance enhancing drugs and an athlete with an addiction are not always the same thing and it’s important to make that apparent in your reporting. When Lance Armstrong admitted to doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013, 28 million people watched as he admitting to using illegal substances – but does that mean he’s an addict? Maybe, although he’s never discussed his doping issue as one tied to addiction. However, he was using those substances specifically to enhance his performance, not for recreation or any reason apart from cycling – therefore, he was doping. That does not mean he is not an addict, but it does put his drug use into context for the readers.
Why is it important to separate doping from addiction when reporting on drug use?
It’s important because the difference ties into understanding addiction, holding the athlete accountable, and being sensitive when reporting about it. Reporting on an athlete’s addiction usually means you are reporting on their personal life or a piece of them that is a part of their life outside the sport – even if their addiction affects how they play. Reporting on an athlete doping is reporting directly on the game they play and they should be held accountable for manipulating their added performance in their sport. You should still be sensitive, understand that doping doesn’t mean they aren’t an addict, and hold them accountable – but the context in which the substance is used is vitally important in reporting it.
There are many athletes in the professional sports community who battle addiction, and many of them have been able to overcome it.
Darryl Strawberry and Chris Herren are two athletes who have battled through addiction, worked to recover, and became advocates for addiction recovery by starting organizations to help others battling addiction. Not every addict succumbs to their addiction or throws away their opportunities as a result, some addicts overcome and create something good from their mistakes. When reporting on athletes struggling through it, it’s important to look at the story from all sides before reporting on it. Understand the addictive process, hold them accountable while keeping sensitivity in mind, and remember the difference between reporting on addiction and doping. Reporting on these stories can be sensitive when fans revere our athletes so much - but maybe that is a part of the problem.
Chelsy Ranard is a writer from Montana who is now living in Boise, Idaho.
She graduated with her journalism degree in 2012 from the University of Montana. She is passionate about addiction recovery advocacy, can be found throwing a Frisbee for her dog, and enjoys listening to talk radio. Follow her on Twitter!
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