A group of retired NFL players says in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the league, thirsty for profits, illegally supplied them with risky narcotics and other painkillers that numbed their injuries for games and led to medical complications down the road.
The league obtained and administered the drugs illegally, without prescriptions and without warning players of their potential side effects, to speed the return of injured players to the field and maximize profits, the lawsuit alleges. Players say they were never told about broken legs and ankles and instead were fed pills to mask the pain.
One says that instead of surgery, he was given anti-inflammatories and skipped practices so he could play in money-making games. And others say that after years of free pills from the NFL, they retired from the league addicted to the painkillers.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, in Atlanta for the league's spring meetings, said: "We have not seen the lawsuit and our attorneys have not had an opportunity to review it."
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, and a copy was shared with The Associated Press ahead of the filing.
The complaint names eight players, including three members of the Super Bowl champion 1985 Chicago Bears: Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent, offensive lineman Keith Van Horne, and quarterback Jim McMahon. Lawyers seek class-action status, and they say in the filing that more than 400 other former players have signed on to the lawsuit.
After receiving numbing injections and pills before games, players got more drugs and sleep aids after games, "to be washed down by beer," the lawsuit says.
Kyle Turley, who played for three teams in his eight-year career, said drugs were "handed out to us like candy."
"There was a room set up near the locker room and you got in line," Turley said. "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."
McMahon says in the lawsuit that he suffered a broken neck and ankle during his career but rather than sitting out, he received medications and was pushed back on to the field. Team doctors and trainers never told him about the injuries, according to the lawsuit.
McMahon also became addicted to painkillers, at one point taking more than 100 Percocet pills per month, even in the off-season, the lawsuit says. Team-employed doctors and trainers illegally administered the drugs, the lawsuit alleges, because they didn't get prescriptions, keep records or explain side effects.
Van Horne played an entire season on a broken leg and wasn't told about the injury for five years, "during which time he was fed a constant diet of pills to deal with the pain," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a landmark case that accused the league of concealing known risks from players' concussions. The NFL settled that case for $765 million US. No blame was assessed and players received no punitive damages.
Among the eight named plaintiffs, six were also plaintiffs in concussion-related litigation, including McMahon and Van Horne.
The latest lawsuit seeks an injunction creating an NFL-funded testing and monitoring program to help prevent addiction and injuries and disabilities related to the use of painkillers. It also seeks unspecified financial damages.
"The NFL knew of the debilitating effects of these drugs on all of its players and callously ignored the players' long-term health in its obsession to return them to play," Silverman said. His Baltimore firm, Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White, also represents former National Hockey League players in a concussion-related lawsuit.
Former offensive lineman Jeremy Newberry retired in 2009 and said that because of the drugs he took while playing, he suffers from kidney failure, high blood pressure and violent headaches.
On game days, Newberry said, he and up to 25 of his San Francisco 49ers teammates would retreat to the locker room to receive Toradol injections in the buttocks 10 minutes before kickoff. The drug numbed the pain almost instantaneously.
"The stuff works, it works like crazy. It really does. There were whole seasons when I was in a walking boot and crutches," Newberry said in an interview. "I would literally crutch into the facility and sprint out of the tunnel to go play."
Newberry said he never considered not taking the drugs because he knew he'd be out of a job if he didn't play hurt, and the only side effect he was warned about was bruising. He said he could tell which players on the opposing team had used Toradol because of the bloodstains on their pants.
After he retired, Newberry said, he saw a specialist who reviewed his medical records and found that for years, the protein levels in his urine had been elevated, a precursor to kidney problems. Newberry said he got blood work during a team-sponsored physical every year but was never told about any problems.
"They said, 'You're good to go, you passed another one. You're cleared to play,"' Newberry said.