Back in May 2014, former NFL players filed a lawsuit in a San Francisco federal court on behalf of over 600 former NFL players from 1969 to 2008. The complaint alleges that the NFL illegally supplied the players with narcotics and painkillers to mask their injuries during games. This alleged medical malpractice has since led to medical complications later in the players’ lives.
According to a recent Washington Post survey (see complaint), close to 9 out of 10 former players said that they played while injured. Also, 68% said they did not feel like they had a choice but to play hurt. Consequently, the complaint alleges that the NFL gave these players no choice but to play injured and acted unethically and illegally by substituting “pain medications for proper healthcare to keep the NFL’s tsunami of dollars flowing.” The complaint concludes that, “[i]n contravention of Federal criminal laws, the NFL has intentionally, recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profit.”
This lawsuit portrays the NFL and its member teams as an astonishingly unethical entity by suppressing players’ pain to keep them on the field. Team doctors and trainers are described as continually administering the players medications without prescriptions and without warning of the dangers of addiction and side effects. The primary motive was to speed up the return of hurt players in order to maximize profits. At times, players were not even told about broken bones and were instead given pills to numb their injuries. There are also allegations that physicians were ignoring players’ medical histories, which could have resulted in fatal injuries due to each player’s “unique body chemistry.” In effect, the lawsuit depicts the NFL as a greedy enterprise which will stop at nothing to make money, including treating its players as “disposable assets” and “thoroughbreds” rather than human beings. The NFL and its team physicians, if the allegations prove true, would be in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, state laws, and the American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics.
The lead attorney for the former players, Steven Silverman, listed the painkillers to be Percodan, Percocet, and Vicodin, with other common drugs administered being Ambien and Toradol. To illustrate the pervasiveness of this practice by the teams’ physicians, Silverman was quoted as saying the drugs were “handed out like candy at Halloween” and further noted that some of the drugs were even given in combinations, which the complaint refers to as “cocktailing.” The long-term effects of these drugs, according to the former players, have been kidney failure, high blood pressure, violent headaches, chronic muscle and bone ailments, and permanent nerve and organ damage.
While the American Medical Association provides a code of ethics for its physicians, it is difficult for the NFL to ensure that the physicians are doing their job correctly and ethically. The NFL has failed over the years to stop this mistreatment and lack of informed consent as evidenced by this case, the concussion litigation, and other cases involving a range of issues. Without authoritative action to protect current and former players, these problems will persist, as the costs of these lawsuits do not outweigh the benefits that this mistreatment provides the NFL through profits.
It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit plays out. There is little coverage of this lawsuit today. However, as it progresses and picks up steam, these allegations could prove to be just as threatening to the NFL as other recent controversies. More than likely, the NFL will try to settle early in attempt to avoid discovery and to avoid revealing potentially harmful information. After the Ray Rice scandal, concussion litigation, and a plethora of other blemishes on the NFL’s reputation lately, it is expected that the NFL will seek to avoid more litigation and negative exposure.