Lawsuit alleges that NFL teams gave painkillers recklessly

Story highlights

A lawsuit alleges that NFL teams broke federal laws

Complaint: use of narcotics and anti-inflammatories is rampant in the NFL

CNN  — 

Recent court documents filed against the National Football League’s 32 teams describe a team culture that disregards both player safety and federal guidance on handling narcotics and painkillers.

The documents are part of an amended complaint; the original was initially filed in 2015 by more than 1,800 former players. Many of the facts alleged were previously gathered during the discovery process.

The complaint alleges doctors and trainers negligently supplied narcotics and anti-inflammatory painkillers to keep players on the field. It contends that teams “maintain the return to play practice or policy by ensuring that players are not told of the health risks associated with taking medications.” The complaint goes on to say “Players are not informed of the long-term health effects of taking controlled substances and prescription medications in the amounts given to them.”

Uninformed consent

The plaintiffs go on to document instances of players on the 32 teams allegedly being provided with painkillers without their knowledge or without being warned about potential side effects.

According to the complaint, one of the plaintiffs, Etopia Evans, the widow of former Baltimore Raven Charles Evans, testified in a deposition that her husband would take an unlabeled envelope full of Motrin and Percocet given to him by the team’s trainers when he played for the Baltimore club. After Evans retired as a player in 2001, he became a sideline reporter, but his wife said he remained addicted to painkillers and sought out pills from the Ravens trainer, who would comply.

CNN has reached out to the Ravens and at time of publication have not received any comment.

Evans died in 2008 of heart failure due to an enlarged heart, despite no family history of heart problems. According to the American Heart Association, regular use of anti-inflammatories can increase risk of heart attack and stroke from 10% to 50%. However, it is not known if Evans’ use of anti-inflammatories was a factor in his death.

‘A competitive disadvantage’

The complaint also cites a 2006 memo from then-Minnesota Vikings head trainer Eric Sugarman to the larger Vikings operations team. In the memo, Sugarman says he is concerned “the medical staff has been too conservative in the past.” He goes on to describe his conversation with the new team physician, “We discussed in depth the use of Toradol and pain medication in the NFL. I expressed my concern that (the Vikings) are at a competitive disadvantage [in that they were the only club not regularly using Toradol].”

CNN requested to speak with the Vikings and Sugarman and has not received a response at time of publication.

According to the complaint, Toradol, an anti-inflammatory injection, has been used as a pain management tool in the NFL since the 1990’s.

A 2003 memo titled “Issues for the NFL Team Physician” was obtained by the plaintiffs through discovery, and states “Most of the team doctors use it as a method to limit pain before the onset or as a chronic treatment with players receiving weekly doses. I have spoken to the company in the past and the use as a weekly dosing is off-label. Chronic and long-term use is not approved. Your patient needs to be advised of this.”

In 2012 a task force set up by the NFL Physicians Society recommended Toradol not be “used prophylactically as a means of reducing anticipated pain either during or after participation in NFL games of practices and should be limited to those players diagnosed with an injury or condition and listed on the teams’ injury report.”

Yet, in a deposition, Dr. Anthony Yates, team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers, testified “that even last season, he witnessed

players lining up for the “T Train,” – Toradol injections before a game – something that had been occurring with the Steelers for at least the previous 15 years. ”

CNN reached out to the Steelers and requested to speak with Dr. Yates. Burt Lauten, the Steelers director of communications, told CNN “We will not be commenting.”

When asked about the complaint, Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, said, “The allegations made by plaintiffs are meritless and the League and its clubs will continue vigorously to defend these claims. … The NFL clubs and their medical staffs continue to put the health and safety of our players first, providing all NFL players with the highest quality medical care. Any claim or suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.”

Just how much?

Just how many drugs were teams providing? In calendar year 2012, on average, according to the complaint, each team was prescribed 5,777 doses of anti-inflammatories and 2,270 doses of narcotics. Considering that each team has 53 players, that could amount to about 150 doses of drugs per player each year.

Narcotic drugs such as Vicodin are considered federally controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration. As a result, such drugs must be prescribed by a physician, often employed by the team. In fact, as far back as 2010, the DEA launched an investigation into the NFL after a San Diego Chargers player was found with 100 Vicodin pills in his possession. Plaintiffs obtained minutes of a conference call between team doctors about the investigation. In the complaint, they claim one doctor said, “We don’t want to give (the DEA) the fodder that we have all been doing this wrong. We don’t want to show them our deficiencies.”

As a result of the investigation, according to the complaint, a DEA agent spoke at the league’s 2011 scouting combine to discuss regulations, such as providing medication only with a prescription or not carrying controlled substances over state lines. And yet, even as late as 2014, Dr. John Marzo, physician for the Buffalo Bills, testified in a deposition that “he would still do so and administer that drug to a player,” according to court documents.

CNN reached out to the Buffalo Bills and requested to speak with Dr. Marzo and did not receive any comment by time of publication.

Doctors and trainers breaking the law

Plaintiffs’ attorneys say they have deposed seven doctors so far and that each one testified “they violated one or more” federal laws or regulations “while serving in their capacity as a team doctor.”

According to plaintiffs attorneys, Pittsburgh Steelers team physician Dr. Yates also testified in his deposition that “a majority of clubs as of 2010 had trainers controlling and handling prescription medications and controlled substances when they should not have.”

Trainers are not allowed by federal law to distribute or handle prescription drugs. Yet in an email from 2009, obtained by the plaintiffs, Cincinnati Bengals head trainer Paul Sparling allegedly wrote, “Can you have your office fax a copy of your DEA certificate to me? I need it for my records when the NFL ‘pill counters’ come to see if we are doing things right. Don’t worry, I’m pretty good at keeping them off the trail!”

CNN also reached out to the Bengals and requested to speak with Sparling but did not receive a response by time of publication.

Steve Silverman, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs told CNN, “We believe the documents and testimony being revealed not only corroborate what our thousands of clients have been telling us but brings into light the ugly realities of how players are mistreated under the [employment] of the NFL.”

Join the conversation

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    This is not the first time the issue of drugs and the NFL has come into the spotlight. In 2014, hundreds of players filed a complaint claiming the NFL and trainers improperly gave them pain medications to mask pain, rather than provide them with appropriate health care. The case was later dismissed because the judge felt it was an issue to be handled in the players collectively bargained agreement process.

    When asked about the most recent case, the NFL Players’ Association said, “The NFLPA is alarmed by the revelations in the lawsuit filed by former NFL players on the abuse of prescription drugs. While we are not a party to the case. … We will monitor this case closely and take all steps necessary to ensure the health and safety of our players.”

    The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the NFL teams, not limited to medical monitoring for the former players.

    These complaints were initially part of a sealed document first reported on by the Washington Post. Despite portions of the complaint being redacted, the Washington Post was able to read the full complaint because it was initially redacted incorrectly. Since then the complaint has been unredacted and unsealed.

    CNN’s Jason Durand contributed to this report.