The NFL Runs on Piles of Painkillers

Football is so brutal that the league is accused of doling out dangerous amounts and mixes of narcotics to keep players in the game. Now even the DEA is concerned.

On Sunday, according to ESPN, Federal Drug Enforcement agents conducted “surprise inspections” of multiple NFL teams, including the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, as part of an ongoing investigation into the use, or rather the misuse, of prescription drugs.

A source explained to ESPN that “the inspections were motivated by allegations raised in a May 2014 federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of several prominent NFL players, who allege team physicians and trainers routinely gave them painkillers in an illegal manner to mask injuries and keep them on the field."

The two teams listed above weren’t explicitly targeted. A law enforcement official told the Washington Post that, “the investigation focuses on practices across the 32-team league, including possible distribution of drugs without prescriptions or labels and the dispensing of drugs by trainers rather than physicians.”

This unannounced visit by the feds didn’t result in any NFL employees being trundled off in chains, mind you. "Our teams cooperated with the DEA today and we have no information to indicate that irregularities were found,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

Well, that’s technically true, but regardless of Sunday’s events, the idea that there are no “irregularities” when it comes to prescription drugs and the NFL is laughable.

Oh, you haven’t heard of this particular stain on pro football’s record? It’s certainly understandable, what with the still-unresolved questions about Commissioner Roger Goodell’s possibly willful blindness with regards to the Ray Rice tape, the shocking images of Adrian Peterson’s battered toddler, or the growing public awareness that vast majority of retired players will suffer some form of debilitating brain disease in their lifetime.

And that’s before we even get to lesser scandals, like the fact NFL’s breast cancer awareness month is a massive boondoggle, the Geisha-like treatment of cheerleaders, and the strip-mining of the public coffers to finance stadiums.

The question then is, after decades of treating everyone that pulls on a helmet and pads like so much disposable meat, could this be the scandal-du-jour that proves to be the tipping point? Will the viewing public come to realize that football isn’t really an All-American national pastime, but more closely resembles a bloodsport that leaves an ever-growing list of casualties in it’s wake?

The short answer is, no. It won’t. Despite all of the negative press and worse behavior over the last few months, attendance is at a five-year high, and television ratings are holding steady.

As to the painkiller lawsuit that got the DEA sniffing around, it is headlined by a slew of former members of the storied 1985 Chicago Bears, including quarterback Jim McMahon, Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent, and approximately 1,300 additional plaintiffs. They allege that for decades, the NFL "intentionally, recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players' health for profit" by doling out highly addictive narcotics without prescriptions, at dangerous dosages, often recklessly combining or “stacking” anti-inflammatory drugs with painkillers and other opioids while failing to notify the players of the potential risks and future negative health impacts—whatever was necessary to get an injured or impaired player on the field.

As current ESPN commentator and former Washington offensive lineman Mark Schlereth told the Washington Post in 2013: “I would strap a dog turd to it if I thought that would make me feel better,” he said. “Bottom line is, I’d do whatever I have to do. Have I had Toradol shots? Yes. Have I abused anti-inflammatories? Yes. Have I used painkillers? Yes. Have I got shot up with painkillers and Xylocaine and different things to numb areas so I can play? Yes. I’ve done it all.”

Of course, even if the lawsuit itself hasn’t resulted in bold-font headlines, the idea that NFL players have to be heavily medicated in order to play isn’t exactly news. In 2011, a study by the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine found that:

  • Fifty-two percent of the retired players said they used prescription pain medication during their playing days. Of those, 71 percent said they misused the drugs then, and 15 percent of the misusers acknowledged misusing the medication within the past 30 days.
  • Those who misused prescription painkillers while playing were three times more likely to misuse the drugs today than those who used the pills as prescribed while playing.
  • Sixty-three percent of the retired players who used prescription pain pills while playing obtained the medications from a nonmedical source: a teammate, coach, trainer, family member, dealer or the Internet.
Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

If you’re asking yourself why a team would practice such shoddy and potentially criminally liable so-called medicine, well, you’re getting to the problem that’s at the heart of pro football: the league is not financially incentivized to keep its employees healthy over the course of their lives. The players themselves are faced with the no-win choice of taking whatever pills are put in front of them, not asking questions—or, in the case of former tight end and wide receiver Nate Jackson, not even being allowed to see his own medical records—or risk being cut and/or branded as a “troublemaker.”

Football is an abattoir, and what happens to the minds and bodies of athletes once they’re no longer able to play isn’t the NFL’s concern. When ex-players start getting litigious and recounting horror stories of addiction and ongoing health problems, they’ve got more than enough financial clout to make their problems go away. That’s the air-tight game plan that the NFL ran to score a big win in the recently settled concussion lawsuit. Not only were they able to avoid admitting any culpability or legal responsibility, they’re pretty much indemnified against future claims.

As Patrick Hruby wrote at VICE Sports: “As currently written, the settlement isn't designed to help hurting former players. To the contrary, it's designed to save the NFL as much money as possible, to the tune of billions of dollars of potential brain damage liability. If the deal goes through, many sick retirees won't get paid. Most of those who do will receive minuscule sums.”

So if you happen to read glossy press releases from the league declaring that this “reaffirms the NFL's commitment to provide help to those retired players and their families who are in need,” try not to roll your eyes

I spoke with Hruby to get his take on this particular brush with the law and what it might mean for the painkiller suit moving forward. He explained that NFL’s recent request to have the case dismissed is a “shell game. They’ll say that the teams are the ones who are responsible for medical care, so we’ll throw them under the bus, then the doctors, and finally the players union. Anything to keep it out of the league office.”

The two cases are further linked by the fact that, as Hruby wrote last August, “the [concussion] settlement's vague, expansive language indemnifying the NFL from future lawsuits could be interpreted to cover the painkiller cases, too.”

That said, an investigation by the DEA does pose a risk should actual criminal charges arise. The process of discovery and airing of the league’s dirty laundry—even though, yes, we’ve seen a great many soiled skivvies recently—could potentially cause “the public to realize that the real performance enhancing drug problem in football isn’t necessarily steroids and HGH; it’s painkillers,” he said.

“And these drugs aren’t even performance enhancing, they’re performance enabling. Basically, we wouldn’t have pro football if these guys weren’t pumped full of painkillers like racehorses. Without them, it would be impossible to play. You’d have to triple the size of the rosters and possibly put forth an inferior product.”

That, of course, would end up costing money, and now we’re back where we started. As long as the NFL remains a money-printing machine, they’ve got more than enough in their war chest to bury litigants or buy them off. That’s far more profitable in the long run than actually devising a system that somewhat lessens the amount of harm the game itself causes, and so there’s zero motivation for them to alter the way they do business.