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The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey will work together once again to bring their Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative to the residents of New Jersey, this time with a focus on the health of student-athletes in collaboration with the NJSIAA (New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association).

The program will feature 10 events held at high schools throughout the state during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. These will be headlined by former Rutgers and NFL quarterback Ray Lucas, who has spoken openly about his past struggles with opioid addiction. The mission of the events will be to educate student athletes on the risks of prescription opioids, as well as the importance of taking care of themselves physically and mentally. 

“The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey is excited to renew its partnership with Horizon and focus on positively impacting high school athletes with the help of the NJSIAA,” said PDFNJ Executive Director Angelo Valente. 

Supported through grants by Horizon’s philanthropic arm, The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, the Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative is now in its third phase.  The initiative began in 2017 with the Town Hall Series held for all 21 New Jersey counties in 2017 and 2018. The program expanded in 2019 and 2020 to include a prescriber education webinar, as well as parent education through PDFNJ’s 5th Grade Parent Alert and community outreach via a statewide awareness public service campaign. The second phase also included community town halls, which were interrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic and held as webinars in spring and fall of 2020.

The NJSIAA also spearheaded an initiative – which included direct, ongoing participation by the PDFNJ and other contributing organizations – that focused on protecting New Jersey scholastic-athletes and other students from opioid abuse. Known as SOAP (the Stop Opioid Abuse Program), it emphasized in-person presentations at high schools throughout New Jersey, and was active from 2017 to 2020.

The new phase of the project focuses on educating student athletes, a group that can be more susceptible to opioid misuse and addiction due to a higher likelihood of exposure to prescription opioids to treat sports injuries. The new Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative will also include parent education through the 5th Grade Parent Alert and community outreach via a statewide awareness public service campaign.

“Horizon is proud to continue our work with the Partnership and begin the next important chapter of the Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative,” said Jonathan Pearson, Executive Director at The Horizon Foundation. “By adding the powerful voice of Ray Lucas and the broad reach of the NJSIAA, we will be able to bring the awareness message to teen students at New Jersey school settings where they learn, play sports and socialize.” 

Sports injuries, such as pulled muscles and concussions, send more than 2.6 million children to emergency rooms every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recent studies have indicated a greater risk for youth athletes to become addicted to opioids. For example, male adolescent athletes who participated in competitive sports across a three-year study period had two times greater odds of being prescribed painkillers during the past year and had four times greater odds of medically misusing painkillers than those who did not participate in sports. 

The Monitoring the Future survey also found that adolescent participants in high-injury sports had 50 percent higher odds of nonmedical use of prescription opioids than adolescents who did not participate in these types of sports.

“Because the scholastic athletes we serve have an elevated risk of opioid abuse, we’re committed to doing whatever we can to provide awareness through information,” says NJSIAA Executive Director Colleen Maguire. “The Knock Out Opioid Abuse initiative is a potent tool for addressing this issue, and we’re delighted for the opportunity to participate alongside the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.” 

Lucas, a Harrison native, starred at Rutgers University in the 1990s before enjoying an eight-year career in the NFL. The game took its toll on Lucas, who sustained numerous injuries and underwent more than a dozen surgeries during and after his playing career. He became dependent on prescription opioids, at times taking more than 1,400 pills a month.

Lucas has been open about his addiction and recovery in an effort to help others who have struggled with addiction and to prevent youth athletes from going down the path to addiction. 

People sharing their experience with substance use is considered an effective method of prevention and a key to reducing the stigma of addiction, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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