Ex-NFL Players Argue NFL in Violation of the Controlled Substances Act: Forcing Players to Play While Injured and Hopped up on Painkillers

Retired NFL Players claiming that their teams pushed them to abuse painkillers recently filed an amended complaint alleging that doctors and trainers supplied narcotics and painkillers in order to keep the players on the field — even though “[p]layers [we]re not informed of the long-term health effects of taking controlled substances and prescription medications in the amounts given to them.” The complaint further claims that teams “maintain the return to play practice or policy by ensuring that players are not told of the health risks associated with taking [the] medications.”

As background, the retired players alleged that the league and its teams placed a substantial amount of pressure on players to return to the field immediately following injuries — encouraging them to even play through their injuries while doped up on painkillers. As support, the players pointed to a report by Dr. McClellan who worked with the league’s medical adviser on prescription drugs. McClellan’s report said that “pain is omnipresent” and “almost an unavoidable consequence of playing” in the NFL.

The report continued, “[i]t is in the players’, the teams’, and the league’s reputational and financial interests to have the most competitive level of play and thus to find ways to overcome any impediment to competitive play — perhaps especially pain.” Thus, “[t]hese incentives and the nature of the sport combine to make opioid and other pain medication usage much more prevalent in the NFL than in virtually any other industry, population or endeavor.”

Narcotic drugs are controlled substances by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Therefore, these drugs must be prescribed by a physician.

As far back as 2010, the DEA began investigating the NFL after a San Diego Chargers player was found with 100 Vicodin pills. The retired players’ complaint referenced a conference call between team doctors regarding the 2010 investigation, where one doctor said, “[w]e 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.” Even though the DEA spoke with the League in 2011 to discuss such regulations, like providing medication only with a prescription or not carrying controlled substances over state lines, as late as late as 2014, Dr. Marzo for the Buffalo Bills, testified that “he would still do so and administer that drug to a player.”

Dr. Marzo is not the only one who has spoken out about violating the regulations imposed by the DEA, as the plaintiffs have deposed seven doctors, who have each testified that “they violated one or more” federal laws or regulations “while serving in their capacity as a team doctor.” As further support, the plaintiffs cited Pittsburgh Steelers team physician Dr. Yates’ deposition that “a majority of clubs as of 2010 had trainers controlling and handling prescription medications and controlled substances when they should not have.” Under federal law, trainers are not allowed to handle and/or distribute prescription medications.

The amended complaint goes on to say: “While the league, clubs and their agents and employees have identified medication-related problems for decades, it appears they failed to act on them until perhaps 2015, even when the DEA itself gave a presentation in 2011 at the NFL combine particularly detailing the clubs’ obligations to comply.” However, even after these warning were issued, Toradol continued to be widely used. As Dr. Yates testified, “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.”

Brian McCarthy, NFL Spokesman, responded to the players claims as “meritless” and that the league would “continue to vigorously defend” them. He maintained that the NFL and NFL teams are all in compliance with the Controlled Substances Act. He continued, “[t]he 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. . . [a]ny claim or suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.”


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