The Washington Post was recently able to obtain sealed court filings from a lawsuit filed by former NFL players against the 32 teams of the NFL. Those court filings detailed how the NFL teams and trainers have regularly abused painkillers violating both ethical and legal standards.
The filings contain testimony and documentation from former and current team doctors and trainers detailing instances where they were aware of abuses, record keeping issues and even violations of federal law and little or no response was given. This indicates a flagrant violation by NFL teams to accord with best practices and federal controlled substance laws.
There was also evidence that team doctors went out of their way to obfuscate investigations by League and DEA officials into the distribution of painkillers by NFL teams. A 2009 email from Cincinnati Bengal’s head trainer reads: “Can you have your office fax a copy of your DEA certificate to me? I need it for my records when the NFL ‘pill counters’ come to see if we are doing things right. Don’t worry, I’m pretty good at keeping them off the trail!” The lawsuit also alleges that a DEA agent tipped off the NFL to a raid the DEA performed on traveling NFL teams to see if they were following policies related to transporting controlled substances across state lines. Emails and testimony such as this indicate a systematic approach to avoiding DEA regulation in regards to painkillers.
The drugs most commonly referenced in the lawsuit were Vicodin and Toradol, an anti-inflammatory medication often used to manage short-term post-operative pain. The court filings describe team doctors giving players Toradol before games to help them deal with previous injuries or just avoid the pain and inflammation that comes from a normal NFL game.
The scale at which Vicodin and Toradol were used is staggering in some cases. A 2014 survey of 27 NFL teams indicated that, on average, 26.7 players were administered at least one dosage of Toradol on game day. That’s more than half an active NFL roster. In addition, emails from a New York Jets assistant trainer show that they prescribed 1,031 doses of Toradol and 1,295 doses of Vicodin just in 2008 alone. Those numbers increased to 1,178 doses and 1,564 doses respectively in 2009.
The manner in which these drugs were given to players was not only problematic due to the dosage levels, often times the drugs were provided by personnel not authorized to do so and in locations where it was illegal. For example, federal law prohibits nonlicensed team personnel, such as athletic trainers, from giving out medication to players. Yet, the court filings detail a regular practice of trainers providing Toradol and Vicodin to players. It is also illegal for a physician to prescribe prescription drugs outside of his geographic area of practice and there are heavily controlled regulations for transporting them across state lines. However, until 2015 the NFL turned a blind eye to these violations by NFL teams. They could no longer do so following the surprise searched by DEA agents of NFL team training staffs in 2014 (the searched that the NFL were allegedly tipped off to beforehand).
What’s even more problematic than these violations are the unknown long term effects of this prescription drug abuse on the health of former players. In a 2011 survey of 644 retired NFL players, more than half reported having used opioids at some point in their career, and 7 in 10 admitted to misusing the drugs. 7% said that they still used opioids currently, more than four times the rate of the general population.
The NFL is no stranger to allegations that it has sacrificed player health. They recently settled a lawsuit where they were alleged to be negligent towards the effects of concussions on NFL players. This lawsuit is different though in that it is not suing the NFL, but the 32 teams themselves. This could open a new liability for the NFL and bring further questions to a game that been morally complicated as of recent.