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The NFL May Have Violated Drug Laws To Push Painkillers On Players

A lawsuit brought by former players has some startling accusations

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The NFL overprescribed strong painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs to its players, in violation of the Drug Enforcement Agency and federal prescription drug laws, according to a federal lawsuit filed by former players against the league’s 32 teams.


The Washington Post obtained sealed court documents in which the plaintiffs claim “numerous documents obtained during discovery show how clubs and their doctors and trainers concealed their illegal activities for years.” Teams let doctors hand out massive amounts of drugs while not fully informing players of those drugs’ side effects; teams allowed staffers who couldn’t legally prescribe drugs administer them to players; and when regulators informed teams of their noncompliance, they largely ignored them. Also, in some cases, the teams’ drug regimens led players to become addicted to opioids.

If the allegations prove true, it will show that the NFL systematically compromised the health of its players. A massive overhaul of the league’s medical procedures and structure would be the only way to fix the problem.

Currently, doctors who treat the players are employed by the teams, which puts the doctors in a compromising position. Are they supposed to be working in the best interest of the players’ long-term health or are they working for the benefit of the team, which wants the most it can get from its players? To solve this problem, the NFL must hire independent physicians who do not answer directly to the team, but serve the health of the players.

According to stories from players contained within the lawsuit, it looks like the doctors were serving the teams—not the players. Deadspin obtained the full, unredacted court filing, and pulled some especially damning details contained within the lawsuit, including this excerpt:

On November 22, 2003, the night before an away game in Baltimore, Maryland, trainer Ken Smith gave named Plaintiff Jerry Wunsch an Ambien. The next day, before the game, Coach Holmgren asked Mr. Wunsch if he could play, despite excruciating pain down the whole right side of his body, to which Mr. Wunsch replied “I can’t play, Coach. I can’t play today. It’s my first game. I just can’t do it.” Coach Holmgren then called Sam Ramsden, the Seahawks’ trainer, and asked “What can we do to help Mr. Wunsch play today?” Mr. Ramsden brought the doctors over, who gave him a 750 mg dose of Vicodin and Tylenol-Codeine #3, saying they would help, even though Mr. Wunsch was already taking anti-inflammatories as prescribed by his doctors. He played— feeling high—and after halftime, the medications wore off and he told anyone who would listen that he could not play anymore, but Mr. Ramsden, the head trainer, gave him another 750 mg of Vicodin on the field for the second half, telling Mr. Wunsch, “Don’t sue me personally for this.”

In response to the league’​s concussion crisis, which saw the NFL acknowledge that a team-employed doctor may not be the best person to evaluate players’​ brain injuries, independent neurologists began examining players on the sidelines. Those nonteam-affiliated doctors have to give a player a battery of tests to approve them rejoining the action. Before these reforms, clearly concussed players were routinely allowed to go back in the action, leaving them susceptible to even greater risk of long-term brain damage, because an existing concussion increases the likelihood of suffering another one.

To save themselves from future lawsuits (and actually show they care about their players), the NFL needs to expand its use of independent physicians beyond just concussions and adopt them for all injuries. Then those doctors need to put in stronger protocols for prescribing medication, as well as using better diagnostic tests to evaluate a player’s injury to determine when they can take the field again. The current system, where teams employ the doctors, no longer works.

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