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NFL sued by 1.8K ex-players over alleged misuse of painkillers

A federal lawsuit filed by more than 1,800 former NFL players against each of the league’s 32 teams alleges that trainers and physicians regularly and routinely broke regulations to dispense painkillers and other prescription-strength anti-inflammatories at rates far higher than previously acknowledged or revealed. A Washington Post report published on Thursday revealed the lawsuit claims the 32 teams violated federal laws governing prescription drugs, disregarded drug-safety guidance, and plied athletes with powerful painkillers causing long-term damaging effects.

The revelations came after the Washington Post reviewed 127 pages of sealed material collected by the players’ attorneys as part of a lawsuit filed against the teams in U.S. District Court in Northern California. Among the findings are emails from trainers around the league suggesting they were in control of handling and distributing controlled substances and prescription medications rather than the team’s physician.

“Can you have your office fax a copy of your DEA certificate to me?” Paul Sparling, the Cincinnati Bengals’ head trainer, allegedly said a 2009 email. “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!”

The Bengals did not make Sparling available for comment to the Washington Post, and it was not clear who the email was sent to. However, NFL spokesman Brain McCarthy called the allegations “meritless” and told the Washington Post the league would continue to “vigorously defend these claims.”

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Testimony from team doctors was also detailed in the documents, which included that of Pittsburg Steelers’ team doctor and past president of the NFL Physicians Society, Anthony Yates. According to the report, Yates testified “a majority of clubs as of 2010 had trainers controlling and handling prescription medications and controlled substances when they should not have.”

The players also allege they were not always informed of which medications they were being given, or advised of any potential risks.

In addition to testimony, the Washington Post revealed details about the alleged number of painkillers and prescription-strength anti-inflammatories dispensed to players over the course of a calendar year. In 2012, according to the filing, the average team prescribed nearly 5,777 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and 2,213 doses of controlled medications to players.

Sports medicine experts told The Washington Post it’s difficult to understand the league’s merit for doling out such high numbers of the pills without knowing dosages, and that it’s unlikely the drugs were distributed evenly throughout the roster. They also cautioned it’s unlikely teams reported the full extent of medications requested by players.

Additionally, the news outlet’s report revealed trainers and physicians expressed concerns about competitive disadvantages over players not receiving a powerful painkiller called Toradol. In 2006, an alleged memo from Minnesota Vikings’ head trainer Eric Sugarman to then head coach Brad Childress and the team’s vice president of operations detailed a meeting he had with the team’s physician about possibly including Toradol in player treatment.

“I expressed my concern that [the Vikings] are at a competitive disadvantage…. I feel very strongly about this point,” the alleged memo said. “… I feel that Dr. Fischer is beginning to see my point of view on many issues. I also feel he is willing to change to improve.”

The team did not make Sugarman or Fischer available to comment to the Washington Post, nor did they issue a statement.

The complaint further states the league has ignored prescription drug problems for decades, with examples including instances dating back to 1998. According to the report, at least 11 team and league medical officials have been interviewed as potential witnesses under oath, but the case isn’t scheduled for trial until October.

The Washington Post reported it was able to review much of the information that was meant to be redacted due to an apparent technical error. 

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