Painkiller Lawsuit Against the NFL Will Cause the League a Serious Headache

Fresh from tentatively settling the class action lawsuit based on the concussions suffered by its players, the National Football League faces a new challenge that promises to cause the League migraines for years to come. Eight former NFL players -- Richard Dent, Jim McMahon, Jeremy Newberry, Roy Green, J.D. Hill, Keith Van Horne, Ron Stone and Ron Pritchard -- are named in the suit filed in San Francisco, which plaintiffs' attorneys intend to convert into a class action covering all retired players. The complaint claims that the League, through employees of its member teams, supplied its players with illegally obtained drugs and painkillers throughout their careers. No one advised them of the risks involved in such drug abuse. As a result, the players claim they were kept on the field although injured, and they now suffer debilitating medical complications including drug dependency.

When the concussion suit was originally brought, many thought the underlying theory was legally weak because football players certainly were aware of the risks they faced from playing the game, with concussions foremost among them. This suit is quite different because it involves risks the players might not have been aware of, and, as a result, poses a much greater threat to the League's coffers and reputation as America's leading sport.

The federal complaint is couched in hyperbolic language designed, undoubtedly, to catch the attention of the media. It claims that the NFL "fraudulently concealed" the dangerous side effects of the drugs players were required to take. The League's alleged "intentional, reckless and negligent omissions" resulted in debilitating and lasting injuries to the plaintiffs. If these devastating facts are proven and if the alleged practices continue, the professional game as we know it might be doomed.

The complaint is filled with examples of the NFL's alleged "drug culture." For example, Richard Dent, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2011, "received hundreds, if not thousands, of injections from doctors and pills from trainers," including Percodan and a combination drug including Oxycodone Hydrochloride. "No one from the NFL ever talked to him about the side effects of the medications he was being given or 'cocktailing' (mixing medications). Over the course of his career, Mr. Dent became dependent on painkillers, a slow process that overtook him without him being cognizant of it happening."

Dent's teammate, quarterback Jim McMahon, known publicly for his tomfoolery, "received hundreds, if not thousands, of injections from doctors and pills from trainers," including Percocet, Novocain injections, amphetamines, sleeping pills and muscle relaxers. "Over the course of his career and 18 surgeries, McMahon became dependent on painkillers, a slow process that overtook him without him realizing it. At one point, he was taking as many as 100 Percocets per month, even in the off-seasons." McMahon allegedly suffered a broken neck during a game in 1993. Although his legs went numb, he was medicated and returned to action.

As a result of these and similar alleged practices, NFL players became addicted to painkilling drugs. As might be expected, the plaintiffs seek to be compensated for the lasting injuries they suffer. Although the allegations are dramatic and rather tragic, the complaint will need to be filled in with proof. Did the trainers supply these pills in violation of the law? Did physicians prescribe medications without informing the players of the risks involved?

By way of defense, the NFL undoubtedly will claim, as they did in the concussion litigation, that the players knew what was going on and participated in creating the risks they then assumed. They were not naïve. It seems likely that NFL football players understood the short-term effects of taking the drugs. Opiates and anti-inflammatories are serious medicine. The players hurt as a result of playing the game, and the drugs they took alleviated that pain in the short term. What they may not have known were the long-term effects of using the painkillers, the uppers and the downers, including the unabated addiction and resulting organ failure. The NFL will have to respond to these painful allegations.

Some have questioned why the players have only now raised these allegations. This is not the first time we have heard about medical abuse in the NFL, but the concussion litigation showed all the retired NFL players that litigation can have an impact. It is not simply a matter of chance that the claimants have now sought redress.

If proven in court, these allegations raise serious problems with how the League treats its employees. Are they disposable gladiators, as the plaintiffs allege? The litigation will raise questions about how we can countenance such a malevolent enterprise.