WASHINGTON (ESPN.com) — A group of retired NFL players says in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the league, thirsty for profits, illegally supplied them with risky narcotics and other painkillers that numbed their injuries for games and led to medical complications down the road.
The league obtained and administered the drugs illegally, without prescriptions and without warning players of their potential side effects, to speed the return of injured players to the field and maximize profits, the lawsuit alleges. Players say they were never told about broken legs and ankles and instead were fed pills to mask the pain. One says that instead of surgery, he was given anti-inflammatories and skipped practices so he could play in games. And others say that after years of free pills from the NFL, they retired from the league addicted to the painkillers.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a landmark case that accused the league of concealing known risks from players’ concussions. The NFL settled that case for $765 million last year. No blame was assessed and players received no punitive damages.
Understanding the frustration
Troubling. Not because former NFL players feel they were once again misled by the multi-billion behemoth that has become the National Football League, but because there appears to be a growing trend from former players not willing to take responsibility for their own actions.
The popularity of today’s professional football was built upon the back of “big hits” and “physical toughness” that defined the game for decades, even prior to the advent of free agency. The very players who I grew up watching endure the effects of astroturf and subpar helmet technology played the game under a different set of financial circumstances, an entirely different set of business rules. The game has changed substantially since Reggie White vs The National Football League, and certainly to the benefit of the players in their own right.
Free Agency brought with it an open market that has consistently elevated the salaries of NFL players and don’t think that the greats of the past aren’t aware of this. It’s difficult for anyone dedicated to their craft to see a generation of young professionals approach their careers from an entirely different angle and be so handsomely rewarded for doing so. All you have to do is sit around a family reunion and listen to the older generations speak of the newer members in smug disdain.
A different era
And so it goes in the NFL. The “Big Business” that is professional football has pulled these players back in as ambassadors of the game. Look at who’s on the radio, the charity golf events, the Foundation dinners. You see many walk in with crippled knees, hunched over shoulders, disjointed noses, and bent fingers. Once worn as badges of honor, these injuries now serve as a constant reminder of what they gave to a game that hasn’t (at least in their minds) fully given back.
Now they want what they feel is rightfully theirs and it’s easy to find a law firm that will willingly help lead the charge.
Not this time
There’s a lot about the umbrella of the League Office that I don’t agree with. The new NFL appears at times to be more focused on the “entertainment value” of the product it puts on the field and protecting its collective corporate “butt”, than understanding what it REALLY takes on a day to day basis to run the 32 “billion dollar” entities under its canopy of authority.
But in this case it’s going to be hard for me to place the blame and bite the hand that feeds the players. The NFL is much like the Federal Government and has slowly taken over more and more of a protective role with its governance of supervision and oversight. So much so that many within the game would like to give it a push back, though would never dare to do so.
Therein lies the problem, at least in my opinion. If the players feel they have a case, it’s not the overarching responsibility of the League that put them in peril but rather the clubs themselves, a “Perfect Storm” if you will of player, coach, front office, and organizational liability. But in a court of law the clubs probably can’t payout what the players seek, and the players aren’t fully willing to turn their backs on the teams and fans they gave so much for on the field. And so they turn instead to the brand that transformed their game into something many may only vaguely recognize, a Money Making Machine.
Tail wagging the dog
NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed and players are literally paid to play the game on Sundays. Injuries can’t impede a club from paying a player if the injury was incurred on the job, so to say these players would lose their job overnight due to a catastrophic occurrence is just not true (under the CBA), especially the elite level stars. Today’s rules offer even more protection for players and opportunities for settlements if injuries eventually lead to being released by a club.
More than not, the competitive environment and makeup of professional football players pushes them beyond what you and I would consider prudent behavior in dealing with injuries that might have kept them out of a game, especially 20 or 30 years ago. Players will and have stubbornly fought the best advise presented to them from club doctors/trainers in order to stay on the field.
From a coach’s perspective there’s pressure to maintain the best talent you possibly can. Cap restrictions don’t allow you to replace an All-Pro player with another readily available All-Pro player. With many staffs on a “win now or else” self-inflicted timeline, coaches will unwittingly put pressure on players to get back on the field as soon as possible. This emanates from the high dollar contracts and exposure that now come with being an NFL coach.
Career windows are often mere cracks in an opening that may never present itself again. The competition for the limited number of coaching jobs in the NFL is mind-boggling and I found coaches willing to do whatever necessary to ensure the status quo. Same holds true for the front office executives, the Personnel Directors and General Managers who at a much earlier age than most industries find themselves in charge of billion dollar organizations. To relinquish such a once in a lifetime opportunity for a player with a sore knee or bum shoulder just isn’t going to happen.
So the pressure seeps down the chain as club trainers, tasked with ensuring the best of the roster stay out on the field, often work like a battlefield triage unit doing what they can to ensure their own job security. Club doctors and orthopedic surgeons are not employees, but rather subcontract their services. They do walk a fine line of maintaining the trust of the players, while working in the best interest of the teams they serve. I’d say doctors feel their own unique pressure of ensuring quick versus long term results in player health care. The season just doesn’t wait.
The owners, who the media and fans constantly chide for getting involved with football operations, are the very ones who should’ve been setting a culture of conservative protectionism over their players. Yet these are the very men/women that are predominantly results oriented and if they don’t take an active role in the day to day operations, don’t fully understand the dynamics that can result in 2-14 or 14-2.
From my own perspective
I entered the League in 1992. For 16 seasons I listened to the annual briefing given to the players by club doctors and trainers before the start of every training camp. Yes, prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatories were given to the players as part of the treatment process. I saw also players administered injections for joint injuries and associated discomfort. Aggressive drug treatments were at times prescribed to avoid season ending surgery situations, but always with the consent of the player.
I never as a front office executive felt the League pressured the clubs to bypass proper medical protocol. I saw every medication meticulously documented by the trainers and turned over to the physicians in charge. I personally heard both the trainers and doctors communicate with the players before, during, and after treatments. During my early years in the NFL I never once heard from players or club personnel of rumors of rampant “sponsored” misuse of prescription drugs by the training staff in the past. While General Manager of the Denver Broncos, I was on the distribution list of information that came down to all Heads of Football Operations. There was never a straight forward nor implied message of the use of ANY and ALL means to get players out on the field to “maximize profits”.
Could this have happened at individual clubs under the guidance of a rogue medical staff? Most certainly. Could players, faced with the specter of career ending injuries, have misused prescription drugs on their own by repeatedly taking advantage of a situation that ensured these drugs were available when necessary? Most probably. Did the National Football League, as part of a covered up conspiracy, knowingly encourage clubs to give out painkillers and other prescription drugs “like candy” without regard to player health and safety? Extremely doubtful.
At some point we ALL must accept the fact that football is a physically violent and risk laden sport, and then ultimately take responsibility for our own actions and involvement; players, coaches, staff. Nobody forced or is forcing you to do ANYTHING.