Former NFL Players Say League Illegally Supplied Them With Dangerous Painkillers

Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon during a game in 1985; McMahon is one of eight plaintiffs in a new lawsuit against the NFL. CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/JOHN SWART
Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon during a game in 1985; McMahon is one of eight plaintiffs in a new lawsuit against the NFL. CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/JOHN SWART

The National Football League “intentionally, recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profit,” eight former NFL players said in a lawsuit filed against the league Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.

According to the suit (which is here in full, via Deadspin) brought by former players headlined by former Chicago Bears stars Jim McMahon and Richard Dent, NFL teams have for decades illegally obtained assorted painkillers and supplied them to players to help mask injuries and keep them on the field, often times without telling the players of the drug’s potential side-effects or warnings about addiction.

The suit alleges that NFL teams supplied players with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other medications in ways that “constituted a dangerous misuse.” It goes on to assert that the league “fraudulently concealed these dangers from its players to keep them on the field when they shouldn’t have been, placing profit before player health.”

The complaint includes details of personal drug use by the plaintiffs, including the cases of McMahon, Jeremy Newberry, and Richard Green, all of whom described both addiction and times in which the NFL or their teams did not tell them of injuries they had suffered:

  • In language common among all the plaintiffs, Green says he “received hundreds, if not thousands, of injections from doctors and pills from trainers,” but that no one in the NFL “ever talked to him about the side effects of the medications he was being given or cocktailing,” the process of mixing medications. The suit says that Green has suffered three heart attacks since retiring, has high blood pressure, and had to have a kidney transplant in 2012. The suit says NFL doctors were aware of potential kidney problems during his career but never mentioned them to him.
  • Jeremy Newberry, who played offensive line from 1998 to 2006, makes similar allegations and says in the suit that he now has stage three kidney failure and “suffers from high blood pressure and violent headaches for which he cannot take any medications that might further deteriorate his already-weakened kidneys.” Newberry said that he was never told of his kidney problems while he was in the NFL.
  • Bears quarterback Jim McMahon also says that he became dependent on painkillers over his career after he received “hundreds, if not thousands, of injections from doctors and pills from trainers” and was similarly not told about the dangers or side-effects. McMahon says in the suit that he discovered years later that he had suffered a broken neck but was never told of the injury, “pushed back out on the field instead.”

The current suit follows a similar lawsuit filed in 2011, in which 12 former NFL players accused the league of illegally administering Toradol, a controversial anti-inflammatory drug that is sometimes used to mask pain and injury in race horses. According to that suit, teams gave players Toradol before and during games to numb pain but did not warn them of potential side-effects, and a Washington Post survey last year found that 50 percent of former players had used the drug. Toradol is also useful in masking the pain of concussion symptoms, and the 2011 suit alleged that the drug made it harder for players to recognize concussion symptoms as they happened during games.

The NFL in October reached a high-profile $765 million settlement with more than 4,000 former players who alleged it concealed the dangers of concussions. A federal judge has refused to grant approval to the settlement on grounds that it does not contain enough money to properly compensate all affected players.

Playing while hurt is a part of NFL culture — in a Washington Post survey noted in the lawsuit, nearly 90 percent of NFL players said they had played while hurt, 56 percent said they did so frequently, and 68 percent believed they had no choice but to play hurt. Using drugs to address that pain has been a poorly-kept secret for years. A recent survey of retired players found that 52 percent used prescription pain medication; 71 percent of those who had used said they had abused the drugs during their careers. More than three-in-five said they received the drugs from someone other than a doctor — “a teammate, coach, trainer, family member, dealer or the Internet,” according to ESPN’s Outside The Lines. Other surveys have shown that players use opiod painkillers at three times the rate of the general population.

The league has not yet commented on this suit, but in the past, it has played off its painkiller problem as part of a larger societal issue. “The whole issue of pain meds is a big, important issue in our society well outside the NFL,” Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president, told the Washington Post in 2013. “It’s something that needs to be addressed on a broad basis, not just in NFL, and it is something our doctors are looking at.”