RELEASE: Gottheimer Introduces Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill to Combat Student Athlete Opioid Addiction — Creates Federal Youth Educational & Training Grant Program on Prevention

Mar 28, 2022

Endorsed by NCAA, NFL, MLB, NHL, and more

Above: Gottheimer stands with Gail Cole, honoring her late son and student athlete Brendan Cole.

NEW MILFORD, NJ — Today, March 28, 2022, U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) announced that he is introducing bipartisan, bicameral legislation known as the Student Athlete Opioid Prevention Act. The legislation will create a federal grant program through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to invest in educational and training programs at the youth, high school, and collegiate levels on the misuse of opioids and other substances commonly used in pain management or injury recovery by students and student athletes. This legislation will help educate students and train athletic directors, youth sports coaches, school administrators, and other members of the athletic community on the signs and dangers of opioid and substance misuse, as well as strategies for prevention.

More than 115 Americans die every single day from an opioid overdose. Research shows that students and student athletes are at risk of developing a dependency on opioids and other substances at a young age due to common pain treatment following injuries. Furthermore, according to the CDC, there was a shocking 60% increase from 2019 to 2020 in opioid overdose deaths of young people in America — ages 15 to 24. The CDC also reported a 225% increase in opioid-involved overdose deaths over the decade of 2010 to 2020.

From 2014 to 2021, each county in New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District saw an increase in suspected drug related or drug overdose deaths. In Bergen County, there was a 171% increase; Sussex County — 88% increase; Warren County — 115% increase; and Passaic County — 154%. Sadly, most of these deaths were from opioid use.

The bipartisan, bicameral legislation will:

  • Invest in education, training, & prevention — by authorizing the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use to invest $10 million annually to support educational programs for students and student athletes, as well as training for teachers, administrators, athletic trainers, coaches, athletic directors, and others specifically targeted at strategies for preventing the misuse of opioids and other substances commonly used in pain management or injury recovery.
  • Protect our nation’s children, students, and young people — by allowing for educational programs at the youth, community, high school, and collegiate level.
  • Provide critical oversight — by requiring a report on the effectiveness of programs, periodic evaluations, as well as a plan for the dissemination of information to grantees.

“When it comes to the opioid epidemic ravaging America’s communities, I fight for families like the Coles, who lost their son Brendan, a former college athlete, eight years ago to heroin. As we all watch in awe of the exceptional, dedicated student athletes who compete across the nation, we need to demand that America take better care of our student athletes when they aren’t competing,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5). “It starts with educating our athletic communities and students. Athletes tend to be exposed to opioids at a young age due to injury which can lead to dangerous experimenting and long-term disorders. That’s why I’m leading a bipartisan effort to provide federal investments for opioid misuse education and prevention programs to help address this problem before it starts.”

Gottheimer was joined today by Gail Cole, the mother of Brendan Cole, a student athlete lost to opioid addiction, Bergen County Commissioners Tom Sullivan and Mary Amoroso, New Milford Mayor Michael Petrino, New Milford Council Members Hedy Grant, Matthew Seymour, Randi Duffie, Thea Sirocchi-Hurley, and Lisa Sandhusen, Tim McDonough, the Mayor of Hope Township and government affairs representative for the New York Jets, as well as local law enforcement.

“For me, the opioid epidemic is very personal and, especially, the need for education and treatment. On January 4, 2014, I lost my beautiful son Brendan to a heroin overdose. He was 22-years-old and had his whole life in front of him,” said North Jersey resident and mother Gail Cole, ​​the founder of Hope and Healing After an Addiction Death. “For me, education is the cornerstone for battling this epidemic and preventing anyone from ever starting to use it. Teachers, administrators, coaches, and counselors all need to be educated.” 

Gottheimer’s bipartisan legislation is co-led in the House by Reps. Don Bacon (NE-2), Sharice Davids (KS-3), and Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16). The Senate companion legislation is being led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). 

The full bill text of the Student and Student Athlete Opioid Misuse Prevention Act can be found here.


Above: Gottheimer announcing new bipartisan, bicameral legislation today in New Milford.

Video of the announcement can be found here.

Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery: 

I’m here in New Milford today to announce that, this week, I’m introducing new legislation known as the Student Athlete Opioid Prevention Act — new bipartisan legislation to help combat the scourge of our time: opioid misuse, abuse, and death among young people in our schools and across our country. This bill will deploy new federal investment to educate students and young athletes and train coaches and educators on the signs – and dangers – of opioid and substance abuse, including key strategies for prevention. 

I’m very grateful that Senator Jeanne Shaheen will be introducing a companion bill in the United States Senate, and I’m grateful for my Republican and Democratic colleagues in the House joining me in this fight. I’m also proud to share that our legislation has been officially endorsed by the NCAA, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and many others. We’re so lucky to have the New York Jets’ support and my good friend from the team, who is also the Mayor of Hope, Tim McDonough here representing the team.

Tragically, more than 115 Americans die every single day from an opioid overdose. This epidemic is impacting our children and devastating families across our state. 

According to the CDC, in 2019, there were 3,725 opioid overdose deaths of young people in America — ages 15 to 24. And in 2020, for that same incredibly young age group, there were nearly 6,000 deaths — a shocking 60 percent increase. 

These are children and young people we’re talking about here. High school and college-aged kids. 

This disease is tearing our families and communities apart – and it’s only gotten worse during the pandemic, especially among our nation’s children, including right here in Northern New Jersey. The bottom line is: We must do everything we can to stop opioid abuse and addiction in its tracks, and this bipartisan, bicameral legislation I’m announcing today is a vital step in that direction. 

Like every parent, I wish there was a magic bullet to stop addiction and abuse, especially among our children. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t exist — there’s no turn-key solution. That said, we have learned a great deal about the disease over the years, and what we can do to help stop addiction in the first place. 

That’s what the Student Athlete Opioid Prevention Act tackles — especially among student athletes, where, sadly, so much early exposure to dangerous and addictive opioids begins. One of the most underreported but continually devastating routes into drug abuse is through sports-related injuries, and, time and again, it is taking our student athletes down a dark and dangerous path.

Eight years ago, a wonderful New Jersey family, the Coles, now living in Ramsey, lost their son Brendan to heroin. Brendan Cole was a talented and smart young man who graduated from the University of Richmond, having played goalie on the college club lacrosse team.

Before college, Brendan played lacrosse at Bergen Catholic in Oradell, and that’s where his addiction began, like so many others, after he was prescribed opioid painkillers following a surgery in high school. 

When Brendan lost his battle against opioid addiction in 2014, at the all-too-young age of 22, his mother Gail — one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and who we’re so incredibly thankful to have here today — honored his legacy by forming a bereavement group with Lani Bonifacic and Patty Trava called “Hope and Healing After an Addiction Death.”

When the pandemic struck, the in-person bereavement group meetings had to be put on hold, but Gail persisted. She held Zoom meetings twice a month, providing needed support for so many New Jersey families. And I can only imagine how the pandemic must have worsened the pain and grief felt by those who have lost a loved one to addiction. 

Thankfully, Hope and Healing is back to in-person meetings.

When I first met with Gail several years ago, she and other parents shared countless heartbreaking stories with me, and, as a parent of young children, I just can’t imagine what it’s like for these parents to wake up and muster the strength every day. I remember feeling exactly the same way when I first spent time with the Franzese family from Allendale, who lost their son TJ in 2017. TJ was a son of New Jersey through and through. He played for Don Bosco’s National Championship Football Team in 2009, where he started at running back and went on to play at Union College in New York.

Tragically, TJ’s blessing was a curse that too many college athletes face today. After a football injury, TJ was prescribed opioid painkillers and developed an addiction that killed him at the young age of 24.

I remember how TJ’s dad described to me what happened with his son. He had a bad injury, there was an important game, and he told his dad that he wasn’t going to play. And the team doc gave him a few pills, so he could suit up. He did, kept taking the pills, week after week, and he was never the same.

At the charity event I attended in TJ’s honor, there was not a dry eye in the room. Like Brendan, if TJ, the pride of Allendale, could fall victim to the opioid crisis, then whose child is safe? And that’s the point and why we are here today. What can we do to help stop this? 

Our student athletes are hard-working students on and off the field, and they shouldn’t have to risk their lives to play the sports they enjoy and excel in.

According to research, about a third of young people first got hooked on the pills from an unfinished prescription used outside of a physician’s supervision. Another troubling stat: 83 percent of adolescents had unsupervised access to their prescription medications. Studies also indicate that about 80 percent of heroin users started out by abusing narcotic painkillers that they were prescribed. Think athlete and an injury. 

But it’s not just unfinished prescriptions. A University of Michigan study found that student athletes had a higher risk of using opioids for non-medical reasons.

As we all watch in awe of the exceptional, dedicated student athletes who compete in our communities here in Jersey and across our nation, we need to demand that America take better care of our student athletes when they are off the field. 

We also know that there are many other factors contributing to this crisis, specifically with young people — situations where friends share pills with other friends at “pill parties,” where individuals, with addictions to other drugs like cocaine, fake pain to acquire opioids, or where someone just finds leftover pills in a loved one’s medicine cabinet. 

Not to add more to the misery here, but the opioid epidemic has only gotten worse during COVID-19, with added stress, anxiety, and depression brought on by being home alone and time away from friends. We had no clue that an additional deadly crisis would head our way on top of the pandemic, exacerbating an existing mental health crisis — also causing a significant spike in drug use.

According to a recent study by HHS, the number of American children ages 3 to 17 diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29 percent during COVID, and the number of kids diagnosed with depression in the same age group increased by 27 percent. According to current estimates — one in five people — including more than one million people total in New Jersey — have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Not to mention, deaths from drug overdose have increased in the state from 16.7 per 100,000 in 2015 to 32 per 100,000 in 2020. That’s nearly double the number of deaths in just five years.

The CDC reported that, nationwide, for opioid-involved overdose deaths— a 225 percent increase this decade alone.

And opioids, including heroin and the highly potent fentanyl, remain the leading cause of drug related deaths, accounting for more than 75 percent of deaths.

These are heart-wrenching statistics and there is a face and family behind each one of them.

Just a few weeks ago, a 12-year-old boy from South Jersey was found unresponsive on his school bus and later passed away after his uncle forced him to clean up drug paraphernalia that included fentanyl. This epidemic is everywhere. It’s in every town. It doesn’t matter how much people make or what their background is. It’s everywhere. 

And it’s all across my District, too. 

Back in 2017, we lost 129 Bergen County residents to drug related deaths. Then, in 2018: 141, in 2019: 137, in 2020: 182 suspected drug deaths, and in 2021, a staggering 220 suspected drug related deaths. That’s more than a 70 percent increase in just four years. And it’s hit Sussex, Warren, and Passaic Counties, too. From 2014 to 2021, Sussex saw an 88 percent increase in suspected overdose deaths, Warren County saw a 115 percent increase, and, in Passaic, there was a staggering 154 percent increase. These counties had nearly double the number of suspected drug related deaths last year compared to 2014.

Sadly, most of these deaths were from opioid use, including far too many students and student-athletes.

The bipartisan, bicameral Student Athlete Opioid Prevention Act focuses on educating and training our coaches, educators, students, and entire athletic communities. 

It will create a federal grant program through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of HHS — to invest $10 million annually to support programs for student athletes, and training for teachers, administrators, athletic trainers, coaches, and athletic directors to prevent the misuse of opioids and other substances commonly used in pain management or injury recovery. 

This investment will include targeted training sessions for coaches and athletic directors, and will bring in professionals to educate our student athletes on how to avoid opioid misuse and abuse before they are ever exposed. It will also help schools bring in more athletic trainers and experts to promote injury prevention strategies to avoid a need for opioid painkiller prescriptions in the first place. This investment goes beyond our schools, and can also be used for community-run programs like youth recreational leagues, where many children begin their athletic careers. 

The whole idea here is to do everything we can to prevent addiction in the first place. We need a strategy and early intervention. We need to share best practices. This bill does just that.

We all need to work together on all fronts to know the early warning signs to help intervene when a student is encountering a problem or struggling with substance misuse. 

Team trainers and coaches, and athletic staff should help make their athletes aware of the dangers of opioids before they are issued prescriptions for injuries they are susceptible to for a given sport, and be able to properly monitor them if they are using a narcotic. They have a real responsibility to watch out for their athletes — not just to get them back on the field for the next game.

When a child’s brain is still developing, we need to take everything into account before they receive a prescription. Addictive substances have extreme consequences on young brains, and we must educate our children, coaches, and parents early on the potentially disastrous effects of these drugs.

This will take a team effort at every level to win this battle. I mean everyone — coaches, schools, teachers, doctors, parents.  We know how powerful these drugs are, and they will take a real fight. The key is to avoid addiction in the first place. If we can help prevent addiction by training coaches and educators and educating our students on the signs and dangers of opioid and substance abuse, we can take an essential step to winning this battle.

Now, as I’ve said, we know that opioid addiction is not only hitting our students hard — our nation and state are in the midst of an ongoing opioid epidemic as well.

At the federal level, I’m dedicated to doing everything I can to make sure our communities have the resources they need to combat this epidemic and I’ve spent years clawing back federal dollars to New Jersey to help fight this epidemic.

I helped pass the bipartisan CARES Act, to increase access to mental health services here through Community Behavioral Health Clinics, and helped claw back more than $500,000 to fight the opioid crisis in the Fifth District with support for the Center for Prevention and Counseling. 

I also helped claw back nearly $300,000 for towns like Mahwah to provide more training for first responders and counselors to combat the crisis, and improve coordination with local educators and health care providers.

There’s also the bipartisan Support for Patients and Communities Act, which I helped get signed into law — representing one of Congress’ most comprehensive responses to tackling the opioid epidemic. It includes investment in federal resources for prevention, education, coverage, treatment, and support for law enforcement.

And I’ve fought for several key bipartisan bills in Congress to stop heroin and fentanyl coming in through China.

I also want to commend the Governor for his pledge this month to use $641 million from legal settlements with opioid manufacturers exclusively for investment in treatment, training, and substance abuse programs to combat the opioid epidemic in our state.

These are all necessary steps. But ultimately, I know that it will take all of us working together – from the NFL to coaches to parents and law enforcement – to beat this epidemic, especially among young people and student athletes. I’m hopeful that with persistence, and some help from the bipartisan legislation I’m announcing today, America can and will win, and help protect our children, our students, and our student athletes. Know this: I will never quit fighting for our families like the Coles. 

We live in the greatest nation in the world and we don’t quit. When we come together as a community, there is nothing that can stop us – and our best days will always be ahead of us. 

Thank you and may God Bless our children, and may God continue to bless these United States of America.


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