Ex-Players Say NFL Handed Out Painkillers ‘Like Candy’

The National Football League has been sued by more than 600 retired players, who have charged that they were wrongfully doped with addictive painkillers to keep them on the field at the expense of their health. This marks the second time in a week that makers of opiate drugs have been pulled into lawsuits. On May 21, the day after the NFL was sued, two California county district attorneys filed a consumer protection lawsuit charging five drug makers of fraudulently marketing opiates to doctors, resulting in a public health scourge of painkiller abuse. Among the drugs in question are the highly addictive OxyContin and Percocet. The legal actions come at a time when the abuse of opiate-based prescription drugs has been deemed an epidemic, eclipsing the fatal overdoses of cocaine and heroin combined, and newly exceeding the death toll from road accidents. The drugs were typically approved for late-stage cancer patients, not routine gridiron injuries or ordinary backaches. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, enough painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month. Against that backdrop, the NFL complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and seeks unstated damages. The suit claims that the league intentionally, recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profit. Eight players were named in the lawsuit. They include Jim McMahon, a former Chicago Bears quarterback who claims he suffered a broken neck and ankle during his pro career. He was unaware of the extent of his injuries at the time, he alleges, and was given prescription pain medicine and sent back out to the field. The NFL has not responded to the 87-page complaint in court. League attorneys told the media they were reviewing it.

‘I Became a Junkie’

In addition to McMahon, others named in the lawsuit are retired NFL players Richard Dent, Jeremy Newberry, Roy Green, Keith Van Horne, Ron Stone, J.D. Hill and Ron Pritchard. McMahon, Dent and Van Horne were part of the 1985 Chicago Bears’ team that won the Super Bowl. Their attorneys say the plaintiffs also include hundreds of other retired NFL players. Six of the eight named plaintiffs also are involved in a group lawsuit against the NFL for concussions and other head injuries suffered during their gridiron careers. That case was settled last year for $765 million, but the federal court has yet to sign off on it due to concerns that the funds may be insufficient. “I was provided uppers, downers, painkillers, you name it while in the NFL,” said J.D. Hill in a statement on the lawsuit. “I became addicted and turned to the streets after my career and was homeless. Never took a drug in my life, and I became a junkie in the NFL.” The lawsuit alleges that team trainers and doctors temporarily masked injuries so that players could get back in to the games, and that drugs including painkillers that required prescriptions were administered illegally and without information about their potential risks. “We are concerned with harm from painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicines that cause joint injuries by masking pain, addiction and damage to internal organs,” one of the player’s attorneys, Steven Silverman, said in a news release. The drugs were “handed out like candy at Halloween,” he told the Associated Press. Other injuries alleged include dementia, heart and lung problems and addiction to the drugs. The lawsuit, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer, “seeks an injunction creating a testing and monitoring program that would be funded by the NFL to help prevent addiction, injuries and disabilities related to painkiller use.” Silverman told Farmer: “The NFL made billions of dollars as a result of drug use that would be prohibited for horses.” Looming over this latest NFL lawsuit is the question of whether players should shoulder responsibility for the decision to take heavy-duty painkillers in order to return to play.  Should they have asked more questions of team doctors and trainers, or did their desire to return to the field overshadow those concerns?

Who Is to Blame?

Former NFL lineman Kyle Turley told the AP: “Obviously, we were grown adults and we had a choice. But when a team doctor is saying this will take the pain away, you trust them.” In the latest lawsuit to hit the NFL, the basic question is whether NFL players were properly informed about the drugs they were being administered, Arthur L. Caplan and Lee H. Igel wrote this week in an opinion piece for Caplan is head of New York University’s division of bioethics while Igel is an associate professor in NYU’s Tisch Center. “There is also some question about whether they felt compelled to consent to the treatments because of the nature and culture of their workplaces,” they wrote. “But the biggest question is: Who should be charged with thinking for the long term, since players may only be thinking about what they need to do now to get back on the field as soon as possible? That is where responsibility for thinking long-term lies.”    

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