Former NFL players revolt against pill-popping ‘no pain, no gain’ culture

Powerful league under pressure from class action lawsuit and DEA investigation

A typical collision in an NFL game. Retired footballers abuse opioid pain pills at a rate more than four times the general population. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

A typical collision in an NFL game. Retired footballers abuse opioid pain pills at a rate more than four times the general population. Photograph: Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

 

Some former NFL players are alleging that before games they were given Toradol, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly used on racehorses, to numb the pain they would inevitably suffer in jarring collisions. Others recall flights back from matches during which trainers walked down the aisle of the team plane with briefcases full of painkillers. The players were encouraged to wash them down with beer.

Almost all report a systemic culture in which doctors routinely dispensed pills “like candy at Halloween” with the expressed purpose of enabling injured players to take the field. There were never any cautionary instructions about the potential side-effects of taking so much medication – only talk about the importance of donning helmet and pads for the next crucial fixture.

Last Sunday, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration made surprise raids on several NFL teams across America. The feds inspected every bag and interviewed club doctors at stadiums and airports as part of an investigation into prescription drug abuse – an investigation prompted by a class-action lawsuit filed by more than 1,000 former players earlier this year.

Legendary Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and other names who defined the sport over the past four decades claim they were issued painkillers, anti-inflammatories and sleeping pills in such excessive quantities and over time periods that have caused long-term health problems. They also allege that doctors often kept them in the dark about the true extent of their injuries. In some cases, years went by before individuals discovered they had played entire seasons with broken bones.

Injections and pills

Roy Green

“Since retiring, he has suffered three heart attacks. He also suffers from high blood pressure. In November 2012, he had a kidney transplant due to failing kidneys.”

Some in the league tried to dismiss the DEA’s sudden interest in the way teams treat players as simply checking up on doctors bringing medication across state lines, But the truth is that the NFL, like American society in general, has a longtime prescription drug problem.

More than three years ago an ESPN survey discovered that retired footballers abuse opioid pain pills at a rate more than four times the general population. This finding tallied with all the anecdotal evidence.

Brett Favre, one of the iconic quarterbacks of the modern era, was an up and comer in 1992 when he suffered a separated shoulder. Not wanting to miss games for fear of losing his job, he started taking doctor-prescribed Vicodin to ease the pain and help him pretend to be fit.

Within a couple of seasons, Favre was popping 15 pills a day and was so cripplingly addicted that if he threw them up, he’d clean off the vomit and swallow the pills again.

What’s astonishing is that nearly two decades after Favre told his horror story, the government’s involvement and the lawsuit may finally force the NFL to address the issue.

At least part of the problem here is the exaggerated macho culture in a sport where the mantra “Ya gotta play hurt” is drummed into children from the first time they put on a helmet. Then there’s the matter of money. Uniquely in American leagues, NFL contracts are not guaranteed. So a player can start on a Sunday, fail to perform and be released on a Monday morning with only a fraction of the contract he signed.

Against that precarious background, it’s easy to see why so many are willing to do whatever the doctor tells them in order to stay on the field and remain employed.

Medicinal marijuana

Although it remains on the league’s list of prohibited substances, marijuana is being used by so many in search of a way to alleviate chronic pain that even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has not ruled out allowing in the near future.

“Virtually every single player in the NFL has a certifiable need for medical marijuana,” wrote Nate Jackson, the former Denver Broncos tight end, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times.

“The game we celebrate creates a life of daily pain for those who play it. Some players choose marijuana to manage this pain, which allows them to perform at a high level without sacrificing their bodies or their minds.”

With legal issues still pending about the NFL’s failure to take concussions seriously, and ongoing revelations about a disturbingly lax approach to domestic violence, Malcolm Gladwell, the author and social critic, last week described the sport as “a moral abomination”. Those words alone generated enough angry headlines that they kind of obscured the most pertinent question he posed.

“Can you point to another industry in America which, in the course of doing business, maims a third of its employees?”

That’s the sort of chilling statistic that explains exactly why the DEA did what it did last Sunday.

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