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What Do Athletes Get From Ayahuasca, Mushrooms and Ecstasy?

Aaron Rodgers and Kenny Stills are among the few who have spoken publicly about their use of psychedelics for mental health purposes. But a future where the treatment is more widespread across sports may not be so far away.

NBA agent Daniel Poneman is a touch nervous to disclose his past drug use to a reporter or even talk about that of pro athletes across sports leagues.

“Some people still look at it as something that crazy hippies do or something your parents did at Woodstock and don’t recognize these as legitimate, life-saving medical medicines,” Poneman says. “There are athletes that I know who have had life-changing experiences with these medicines, but only a few of them are brave enough to speak out for fear of being stigmatized.”

Even five or 10 years ago, you might have assumed that Poneman was talking about medicinal cannabis. But its acceptance in sports has grown tremendously of late: For the last two seasons, the NBA, for example, has not randomly tested its athletes for cannabis use. The NFL no longer tests for cannabis in the offseason and has downgraded potential discipline from suspensions to fines in season.

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Poneman is talking about psychedelics, which are in line to be destigmatized next, experts say—in society at large and maybe also even in pro sports. More former professional athletes have been speaking up in recent years about their psychedelics use as a salve for mental illness (e.g., depression, PTSD).

There’s still stigma around taking medication of any kind for mental illness, but it’s slowly lessening. Even Aaron Rodgers said on a recent podcast that he has taken psychedelics to improve his mental health. In a separate interview with Sports Illustrated, the Packers’ quarterback said he does not identify as having a mental illness like depression or anxiety, but that his most recent psychedelic experience—with ayahuasca, in March 2020, in Peru—has helped increase his “self-love.”

“A lot of people have asked a lot of questions in the vein of, ‘You seem so much happier and enjoying things a little bit more—what’s the difference?’” Rodgers says of his life since the pandemic hit the U.S.

“Doing ayahuasca was a big part.”

Rodgers had tried psilocybin (mushrooms) before his experience in Peru, which made him less afraid of trying ayahuasca. Rodgers clarifies that he hasn’t taken either psychedelic in a clinical mental health setting in the U.S.—though he says he’d be open to that if he felt the need.

Before Rodgers spoke out, NFL free-agent wide receiver Kenny Stills was thought to be the only active professional athlete vocal about his psychedelic use. Stills, who last season played for the Saints, says his case of depression in 2016 felt like a “permanent cloud.” On paper, things looked great for him: He had a great partner, he had his degree, he was playing in the NFL and he was taking care of his family. “I had checked every box—and I still had this feeling of darkness and unfulfillment,” he says.

Stills says he sought out every resource he could to treat his depression, and recently he added to that list psychedelics. (Specifically, he used ketamine, an anesthetic with hallucinogenic effects, because it is legal for medicinal use in the U.S., so it shouldn’t jeopardize his NFL standing.) Last year he went to a clinic run by Field Trip Health, a for-profit that provides people with ketamine-assisted psychotherapy—meaning they have to take the medication under supervision of a licensed therapist and debrief with them afterward.

“What ketamine does is it kind of takes away these extra levels of anxiety and the different processes that are happening in the brain so that we can really be our true self,” Stills says.

As psychedelics start to gain traction within athlete- and former-athlete communities, they may be primed for more widespread use across sports—if they’re not being used already. Asked whether he knows of athletes in the NFL or in other professional leagues who use psychedelics to treat their mental health, Rodgers says: “Of course.”

“There’s this interesting back-and-forth that I see in psychedelic research, of one group describing these as gonna change the world and change psychiatry forever, and one group that’s like, ‘They don’t work, and it’s all a scam,’” says Courtney Campbell Walton, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Melbourne who has published, along with Monash University psychedelic researcher Paul Liknaitzky, possibly the only paper on psychedelics in elite sport.

The truth, of course, is likely somewhere in between.

Asked whether he knows of athletes in the NFL or in other professional leagues who use psychedelics to treat their mental health, Rodgers says: “Of course.”

Asked whether he knows of athletes in the NFL or in other professional leagues who use psychedelics to treat their mental health, Rodgers says: “Of course.”

It often starts with a dreamlike sequence. “I wake up and I’m a baby,” former NFL safety Kerry Rhodes said. “In a steamy jungle in Peru …” begins an HBO Real Sports narration focused on former NHL enforcer Daniel Carcillo. “He felt it was his deceased grandmother encouraging him to go,” Rolling Stone explained of former NFL lineman Justin Renfrow. “To go,” in this case, meant to go on a psychedelics retreat in Jamaica.

Why? Because traditional psychiatry is a great tool—but only when it works. The medicine isn’t for everybody, but it can and has improved and has even saved lives (including mine). But plenty of people, elite athletes included, haven’t experienced any or enough relief from any combination of therapy and conventional psychiatric medications, like antidepressants.

Psychedelics are fairly safe, too. The classic psychedelics are considered LSD (acid), psilocybin, mescaline (in peyote) and DMT (which can be found in the ayahuasca plant).

“Every drug has risks,” says psychologist Matthew W. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “But for the vast majority of people [who use classic psychedelics], lethal overdose is not one of them. Someone could take dozens or hundreds of times the intended dose, and it wouldn’t make you stop breathing. It wouldn’t kill your liver. It wouldn’t give you a heart attack—the ways that drugs typically kill people.”

Outside the classics, other psychedelics, which can carry somewhat higher risks, include MDMA (ecstasy), PCP, ketamine and salvia. In particular, psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine (the latter because it’s legal) have been the most studied and accessible for mental health treatments in the general population.

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“We need more options, [not] fewer options. We’re in a mental health crisis,” says Johnson, a leading psychedelics researcher. “While some people might be against traditional medications, I’m certainly not. But I’m more in the category of looking for something that can work better for more people.”

Psychedelics aren’t considered good potential options for all mental illness; in fact, people with conditions like bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder have typically been excluded from trials. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies (MAPS), a U.S. nonprofit, has been studying cannabis and psychedelics use since 1986. It is currently running FDA-approved late-stage clinical trials for MDMA; those studies have included athletes.

Of all the currently illegal psychedelics, MDMA is closest to being approved by the FDA—for the purpose of treating PTSD, which is thought to be more prevalent in athletes than in the general population. MAPS chief scientific officer Berra Yazar-Kloskinki says research in the field has collectively shown that the daylong sessions PTSD patients have with therapists after taking MDMA are more effective (according to an independent clinical interview) than both daylong sessions without MDMA and traditional, 60-to-90-minute talk therapy sessions.

Wesana Health, a life-science company, was founded by Carcillo, whose seven concussions led to a traumatic brain injury and suicidal ideation. His focus now is on developing a holistic wellness program for people with TBIs that will include psilocybin treatment, which he says helped him recover from a dark place years ago.

“When you can’t get a handle on your symptoms, people start to pull away,” Carcillo says. “And you start to feel like a burden. … I just thought, it can’t be f---ing worse on the other side.”

The success of his business, which is attached to names like Mike Tyson and prominent UFC fighter Julianna Peña, might hinge on garnering FDA approval for clinical trials of psilocybin in the U.S.

Ronan Levy, a cofounder and executive chairman of Field Trip, which Stills has used once, says that his company typically sees people’s depression or anxiety scores go from severe to mild, sustained for 120 days on average after treatment. He knows the appeal of psychedelics isn’t just limited to hard results, though.

“There’s certainly a glow around psychedelics that make them seem cool,” Levy says. “Back when we started Field Trip, I had this image of the archetype: a 28-year-old bro from Pittsburgh … who would probably rather be dead than caught in a therapist’s office. But then I asked myself, Could I convince that person to try mushrooms once?

Poneman reasons: “I think professional athletes are seen by so many like superheroes. And superheroes don’t want to seem flawed. They don’t want to seem wounded. They don’t want to seem vulnerable. And to take an SSRI is to admit that you have depression.”

“What ketamine does is it kind of takes away these extra levels of anxiety and the different processes that are happening in the brain so that we can really be our true self,” Stills says.

“What ketamine does is it kind of takes away these extra levels of anxiety and the different processes that are happening in the brain so that we can really be our true self,” Stills says.

Before being cleared to take ketamine, Stills had cleared a psychiatric screening. As he was tripping, at one point he felt disassociated from his body: Everything seemed dark, and he didn’t know for sure where he was. As part of the Field Trip experience, he’s wearing headphones and eyeshades, and there is a therapist in the room with him at all times. He called the therapist over, and she held his hand so he felt grounded in the room.

Psychedelics may be a more appealing option for some than traditional psychology and psychiatry, but that doesn’t mean that they’re stigma-free, or for everyone. Stills sees a hesitance on the part of athletes to speak out.

“I think about all the negative propaganda we were fed as young people with the DARE programs and the government scaring people away with language about … having a bad trip and never coming back,” he says. The NFL veteran attributes athletes’ hesitancy also to the league’s general attitude toward change, calling it “stuck in [its] ways.”

A current athlete in one of the four major men’s sports leagues, who emailed Sports Illustrated under the condition of anonymity, has taken ketamine and mushrooms in the offseason under guided supervision, in the hopes of addressing his anxiety, sleeping issues and panic attacks before games and practices. He’d previously tried traditional anti-anxiety medication.

David R. McDuff, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Maryland’s medical school, has not seen much interest in athletes using psychedelics in his 27 years as a sport psychiatrist. (It is possible that both this, and what Rodgers and other athletes say, are correct: Not many athletes are doing it, but still far more than most may think.) He has had one athlete come up to him and ask about microdosing psilocybin and whether it would show up in a standard urine test. It would not, he says: “The likelihood of finding an athlete that’s using them is so low that nobody’s really going to invest the time and energy into coming up with a urine test for psychedelic mushrooms or ketamine or LSD.”

Urine testing or no, the lack of athletes taking psychedelics might have less to do with their interest levels and more to do with the stigma and rules of their leagues. SI reached out to major men’s and women’s pro sports leagues, as well as the International Olympic Committee, to determine whether psychedelic use is allowed. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which governs Olympics policy, bans MDMA from use during competition, but doesn’t mention other psychedelics.

Rodgers says he did not clear his ayahuasca use with the Packers or the NFL beforehand. “It’s not a banned substance,” he says correctly, yet defiantly. “It’s a plant.” (After the quarterback spoke out, an NFL spokesperson confirmed the use wouldn’t have triggered a positive drug test.) Even so, he says that in the month before revealing that he’d taken the psychedelic, he was nervous.

The NBA prohibits ketamine, LSD and MDMA in its “drugs of abuse” category. MLB prohibits those and also ayahuasca, psilocybin and mescaline. None of the other leagues contacted responded with policy information.

“I’ve talked to team owners in different professional leagues,” Poneman says. “‘Hey, why don’t you bring this to the league to start a conversation, maybe start doing a clinical trial or a study to look into this?’ And I’ve gotten no’s. I’ve talked to other owners and general managers who have said, ‘Oh, I’ve heard about that and I’ve read about that, but I don’t think our league is ready for that.’”

The UFC is seemingly the exception, having said publicly it’s done considerable research into psychedelic use and possibly setting its athletes up with clinical trials via Johnson and Johns Hopkins. Jeff Novitzky, the outfit’s senior vice president of athletic health and performance, started looking into it after a Real Sports episode on the subject aired in late 2020. He says he’s gotten a lot of questions from UFC fighters about psilocybin. Novitzky asked questions of Hopkins experts and learned more about the existing research. The outfit decided to forgo setting up clinical trials right now—both due to concern that not enough athletes have exhausted traditional therapies and the ethics of administering only a placebo to athletes who might need help. But collaboration with Hopkins researchers, he says, is not off the table going forward.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait for 10 or 20 years and see things develop without trying to find some solutions to mental health early on,” he says. “We’re not afraid of new things.”

But Walton says that there are still so many questions that need to be answered by researchers, including how these medicines work in nonathletes across different clinical disorders and whether, once they’re studied more in elite athletes, there could be negative side effects on performance. So outside of clinical trials, he says we’re still a long way away from athletes’ regular participation in therapeutic psychedelic use for mental health issues.

That athlete who spoke anonymously to SI about using psychedelics is ready for leagues to openly embrace the medications: “If it’s not a physical performance enhancer but it can drastically improve people’s mental health, why shouldn’t it be allowed?”

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