Cleveland Browns Take Initiative in NFL to Combat Drugs

The Cleveland Browns, First to Take Initiative to Fight Alcohol and Drug Addiction

The NFL team, the Cleveland Browns are taking initiative to combat drug and alcohol addiction by offering proper addiction treatment to their players who are struggling. This is a breakthrough program for the NFL when it comes to dealing with alcohol and drug use in sports. The informal name of this program is called the “Inner Circle”.

Sam Rutigliano a former Browns head coach, said he saw a completely different side when it came to dealing with drug use in the 1980s and he wanted to see a change and something that actually was effective in treatment.

Before the new “Inner Circle” the previous program was full of ultimatums, punishments, and threats. This whole “get tough” way of handling drug abuse and addiction was less than effective with the Browns players, he saw many programs with this previous approach. Rutigliano agrees that treating the root of addiction is a much better care plan than what has been previously implemented.

The former head coach’s goal was to approach drug addiction differently after firsthand experience with a team member. A player (unnamed) was contemplating suicide as a solution to his drug addiction, it was at this point he knew the old approach was failing the team. Rutigliano is in full support of the Inner Circle, he sees this as a better way to help in those life or death situations and a much better solution than what has been done in the past.

Stop Encouraging Men and Athletes to “Get Tough” When it Comes to Mental Health and Drug Addiction

Athletes are constantly expected to be in prime shape and supreme performers on the field/court in order to keep their jobs. This can be a difficult position for those who struggle with any kind of addiction issue. The career of an athlete is always under pressure if the performance is not up to standards of their competition. There are so many pressures that are put on these stellar athletes, many athletes are in fear when it comes to the consequences of drug abuse or alcohol addiction. They have been mostly raised to see any mental health or drug addiction as a weakness, and this attitude needs to change.

The typical punishment for any drug related crime or alcohol related offense in the NFL is suspension. This can really make the problem worse for athletes dealing with addiction or drug and alcohol abuse. Not only does this not address the core root of the addiction problem, but it makes the player feel completely helpless to their disease because of the suspension, it is a dooming result that could lead to the experience Rutigliano went through when he was talking about one of his players who was suicidal.

Situations that can add to drug and alcohol addiction and abuse:

Injuries and Physical Pain: After playing so hard on the field for their entire lives, many athletes are introduced to injuries and many even have to have surgery. According to the National Libraries of Medicine a study in athletes reported that over 50% of athletes have received an opioid painkiller for their recovery or injury that was sports related. Of those 50+%, 71% reported misusing the painkillers. The strong desire to treat the pain and rush the healing process in order to get back into the game can lead to serious addiction problems.

Untreated Mental Health Disorders: Mental illness and substance abuse often go together, we call this a co-occurring disorder. According to the NIDA, those who suffer with anxiety or depression are around twice as likely to abuse substances compared to the general population. Especially for male athletes, we see a stigma attached to mental health and getting help for mental health disorders. Instead of turning to professional help, many will self-medicate with substances or alcohol.

Pressure to Perform: Most Athletes are in huge multi-million dollar contracts that are directly related to their performance on the field. This is a huge amount of pressure that is placed on an athlete and can cause high-stress. When stress comes there can be an increase in the chances of athletes turning to drugs and alcohol abuse.

Establishing the Inner Circle

The framework of the Inner Circle started by Coach Rutigliano and Dr. Gregory Collins of the Cleveland Clinic in the year 1980. The main idea being that if there are issues within the brain it will require a clinical and professional diagnosis, supervision and treatment- this is no different than any other body part. The Inner Circle program includes professional treatment from medical specialists, counselors, psychiatrists and others. Just as AA and other 12-step programs there is anonymity in the treatment and this is is crucial to the ongoing success of the program. Browns players don’t know people who are currently involved in the Inner Circle. At one point there were 12 players participating in the Inner Circle program, but they are instructed not to tell anyone- so no one knew that they had 11 other teammates on the same journey as them.

Cleveland, Ohio Started the Model for the Entire NFL

Responsible for reshaping the view of athletes and drug use in sports, the Inner Circle framework has become a base model for the entire NFL. Rather than being stigmatized or suspended, athletes who used drugs are being treated for a medical disorder. The NFL still stands behind strict drug testing both on and off season for all players. If you remember Johnny Manziel a few years back, went into a treatment program for alcohol and drugs and he had the team support behind him during that time.

Former coach Rutigliano was given the Bronze Key Award from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependencies in 2007 for his work with the Inner Circle, he also refers to this program as one of the greatest accomplishments of his career.

The goal is to continue to learn and educate as much as possible about the disease of addiction and focus on helping the NFL players rather than punish them. The focus should be effective treatment.

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, The Best Treatment Center offers effective and individualized treatment. Call today for a free insurance verification:

Call us:   1-888-4TBTNOW

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.