US Federal drug-enforcement agents questioned medical-staff members from the San Francisco 49ers and several other teams on Sunday as part of a continuing investigation into the distribution of painkillers in the NFL.
The unannounced visits by the Drug Enforcement Administration were spurred, in part, by reports of widespread abuse of painkillers that were included in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL.
The suit, which is being heard in federal court in California, claims that team doctors routinely dispensed Percocet, Toradol, Novocain and other drugs to energise players before games and to relieve pain afterward.
More broadly, the agency has increased its policing of prescription drugs in recent years as addiction and abuse of painkillers and other medications have skyrocketed.
A spokesman for the agency characterised the inquiries on Sunday as administrative in nature and said agents were looking to ensure that team doctors and other medical staff employees were properly licensed to possess and distribute prescription medicine outside their home states. They also wanted to confirm that team trainers and other nonlicensed staff members were not handling prescription drugs.
"Our role is law enforcement, and we have the regulatory authority to make sure anyone who has a license operates within the law," said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the DEA.
A random inspection
On Sunday, plainclothes agents arrived unannounced at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the 49ers played the New York Giants. After the game, they spoke with one of the 49ers' team doctors in a private room. Less than 10 minutes later, the doctor joined the team on a bus that took them to the airport.
“The San Francisco 49ers organisation was asked to participate in a random inspection with representatives from the DEA Sunday night at MetLife Stadium,” Bob Lange, a team spokesman, said in a statement. “The 49ers medical staff complied and the team departed the stadium as scheduled.”
Agents also met medical-staff members traveling with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at an airport in Maryland as the team was heading home from a game against the Washington Redskins. A spokesman for the team, Nelson Luis, said the agents spoke with team officials for five minutes.
The Seattle Seahawks also confirmed that agency officials met with their staff in Kansas City, Missouri, where the team was playing the Chiefs.
An NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy, added, “Our teams co-operated with the DEA today, and we have no information to indicate that irregularities were found.” Payne said that depending on the egregiousness of any irregularities that might be found, a doctor or nurse practitioner might receive a letter describing a violation.
“No one’s going away in handcuffs today,” he said, adding that no search warrants were issued and no one was arrested. Payne said the agency’s inquiry was continuing, and he did not rule out other inspections of NFL team medical staffs.
Lawsuits contending that NFL doctors have mishandled prescription drugs date back at least to 2011. That year, a dosen former players accused the league and its teams of repeatedly administering the painkiller Toradol before and during games, worsening high-risk injuries such as concussions.
Anxiety, depression, memory loss, severe headaches
The players also contend that the league and its teams failed to warn them of the consequences of taking the drug, a blood thinner that, according to the suit, “can prevent the feeling of injury” and therefore made it harder for players to recognise when they had concussions.
The dosen retired players, including Joe Horn and Jerome Pathon, played in the late 1990s and early 2000s and say they had anxiety, depression, short-term memory loss, severe headaches, sleeping problems and dizziness. "We took it like clockwork," said Horn, a receiver who played 12 years with the Kansas City Chiefs, the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons and who said he was experiencing bouts of dizziness and blackouts.
In a class-action suit filed this year, hundreds of former players said team doctors often dispensed painkillers “without a prescription and with little regard for a player’s medical history or potentially-fatal interactions with other medications.”
The complaint also said that the NFL “sanctioned and/or encouraged the misuse of narcotic pain medications” in combination with other anesthetics and alcohol as a way to help players deal with a demanding slate of games.
Baseball, hockey and other sports
The NFL has asked a federal judge to dismiss the suit. Toradol and other painkillers have been routinely distributed in baseball, hockey and other sports, and have been an open secret in locker rooms for years.
But their use in the NFL is notable because of the violence of the game and because painkillers taken as prophylactics before games can mask injuries, including concussions.
The NFL has agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle a suit brought by about 5,000 former players who said the league hid from them the dangers of concussions and repeated hits to the head. A federal judge in Philadelphia will hear objections to that proposed settlement this week.