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Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Updated: May 23, 11:19 AM ET
Painkillers suit exposes NFL culture

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

They are decades removed from their NFL playing careers and yet they sound like men who are only now waking from a deep slumber, shaking off the fog of what really happened during their Sunday wars, and taking a reckoning of the Faustian bargains they thought they "had" to make. And they do not like what they see.

Nor should we.

The lawsuit filed by eight former players in district court in San Francisco this week against the NFL, alleging that their former teams illegally administered painkillers and engaged in other questionable practices, is haunting reading. And that's true even if you know the NFL is a violent, brutal, cutthroat business where athletes willingly damage themselves. Because this suit is about far, far more than that.

Like the concussion lawsuit against the NFL that preceded it, this lawsuit portrays the NFL as a far more deceitful and intensely unhealthy culture than any of us knew. It was -- and remains -- a very sick culture, in myriad ways.

Something said by J.D. Hill, a wide receiver for Buffalo and Detroit in the 1970s, and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, sums up the alleged backstage reality as neatly as anybody.

J.D Hill
Former Bills receiver J.D. Hill (left) claims he "became a junkie in the NFL."

"I was provided uppers, downers, painkillers, you name it while in the NFL," Hill claims in his statement. "I became addicted and turned to the streets after my career and was homeless. Never took a drug in my life, and I became a junkie in the NFL."

We've long known football has always relied on creating an ethos that glorifies players for doing the unreasonable. But the fact so many NFL players are rebelling against the gladiator mentality -- and admitting a great many of the masochistic things they've always been celebrated for were, in hindsight, a crock -- is a story within the story of this lawsuit.

If the proven bar of entry into a sport is a willingness to maim and then drug yourself for others' entertainment, sometimes without being told how injured or at risk you really are by teams that (the suit contends) care only about maintaining their profit margins, how are any of us OK with that?

Hill is not alone in describing the NFL as such a place.

The lawsuit includes three members of the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team that won the Super Bowl: defensive end Richard Dent, offensive lineman Keith Van Horne and quarterback Jim McMahon, who also speaks frankly about his misuse of painkillers.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs told the Associated Press they are seeking class-action status and that more than 500 other former players have signed on to the lawsuit, which charges -- among other things -- that the league illegally gave players dangerous and illegal narcotics to treat pain or get those players to play when they should not have. It also alleges the NFL administered illegal drugs without prescriptions, and with no warning about their side effects.

The NFL's response? Commissioner Roger Goodell said on Monday that the league's lawyers were still reviewing the filing, and by Thursday, not much about the league's public posture had changed. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an email message to ESPN.com that, "Since this is in litigation and in the hands of our lawyers, we are not commenting at this time."

But the league won't be able to deflect comment forever. Or keep referring reporters to this statement issued by Dr. Matthew J. Matava, president of the NFL Physicians Society as well as the St. Louis Rams team doctor, defending his current peers: "As the president of the NFL Physicians Society, I am surprised by this lawsuit. As an NFL team doctor for the past 14 years, I have seen first-hand the outstanding medical care that team doctors provide to players on and off the field. I will leave it to others to respond to the specific allegations of the lawsuit, but as doctors we put our players first."

Anyone who follows the NFL knows that players' abuse of painkillers to keep playing or to navigate their post-retirement disabilities is not a brand-new story.

Neither are this lawsuit's allegations that NFL team medical staffs were riven by conflicts of interest, and may have knowingly deceived players about the severity of their injuries to ensure they'd continue to be available to play.

Rob Huizenga, a former team physician for the Oakland Raiders, wrote a whistle-blowing book ("You're OK, It's Just a Bruise") on many of these issues way back in the mid-'90s. Brett Favre, long praised as the NFL's iron man quarterback, has been frank for years about the Vicodin addiction that contributed to a potentially life-threatening seizure and persuaded him to enter rehab to kick his habit of taking hundreds of pills a month.

ESPN's "Outside the Lines," working in conjunction with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, commissioned this groundbreaking study of 644 players in 2011 that provided bracing data of the sort of life cycle for NFL players that Hill describes: 88 percent rated their health as excellent when they entered the league; only 13 percent said the same after they quit; 71 percent said they misused painkillers during their careers.

The report also presented anecdotal examples like Dan Johnson, the former Miami Dolphins tight end who broke so many bones his teammates called him "The King of Pain."

But as Johnson told OTL's Josh Barr, the price was steep. He became addicted to painkillers and took as many as 1,000 pills some months. He was still wracked by so much pain he said he twice considered suicide.

The OTL report also featured medical experts who explained how Johnson and others find themselves locked in a vicious cycle that doctors who administer these sort of drugs should know about, but allegedly didn't share with the players: When such drugs are misused over time, they destroy the body's natural painkilling function. That leaves the player more dependent on a pill to do what the body no longer can.

And so his addiction deepens.

That's the sort of detail that has gone unappreciated in some places the past few days.

Jim McMahon
Jim McMahon and two other members of the 1985 Bears are plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit against the NFL.

That's the sort of detail that critics and commentators are missing when they've derided these latest plaintiffs as opportunists who are making a naked money grab, and/or just riding the coattails of the massive and successful concussion suit against the NFL (which a judge just kicked back for reconsideration because she thinks the $765 million settlement might be too low).

Many critics of the drug suit have trumpeted the personal responsibility card, and said NFL players knew damn well what they were doing, same as skydivers or race car drivers do. So how can you blame their NFL teams?

"People who are saying that are shooting from the hip," Steven Silverman, the attorney for the players, responded in an email message Tuesday. Silverman says read the suit.

And he's right. If the allegations contained in the suit are true, the players did not know everything they needed to make informed decisions, same as they didn't when it came to concussions.

Van Horne, in his statement, talks about not learning for five years that he played a whole season on a broken leg. McMahon, who is part of the concussion suit as well, alleges that the Bears' staff did not tell him that he had a broken neck or other injuries. He, too, details how he came to overindulge in painkillers to deal with pain.

These are not nuisance claims.

So don't miss another hugely significant overarching point this suit underscores, as well: What the players are also pushing back against is a repudiation of many of the planks that NFL lore is built upon -- things like the non-negotiable idea that if you can walk on Sunday, you're gonna play. The Code that says players are expected to do "whatever it takes." The "warrior mentality" that once moved All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott to cut off the tip of a finger so he wouldn't miss a game.

The "Whatever It Takes" ethos has always been so powerful in the NFL, it isn't just scrubs who've felt they had to go along to get along, or stick on a roster. Even Hall of Fame-bound stars like Favre and Dent confess they felt pressure from their bosses, teammates and fans to conform.

But more players, even stars who profited mightily, are now willing to be heretics and say it wasn't worth it. And they don't care anymore if admitting that cannibalizes their tough-guy images.

A great many of them claim in fact they did not know all the risks they were signing up for.

And if they had to do it all again? You're damn right they might behave differently.

"It led people to make bad decisions," Dent said this week on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike."

Whether this suit prevails or not, these players have thrown down another challenge to the league and its fans and anyone who's now playing or even considering playing the game.

Hopefully, the discussion it sparks will be another important step in what the "new" NFL is going to look like. And that's important.

Because the NFL needs to continue to improve and change how it treats its players.

The pushback these plaintiffs are getting suggests there is still a perception lag.

Dent was right Tuesday when he said he accepts some personal responsibility for what happened, but pinning the responsibility all on players rather than exploring the teams' moral and legal responsibilities is wrong because, "You were there serving me. You were right there with me ... 'Oh, you've got a little problem? Here, take this. You're coming back on the plane and you have a little swelling? Here, take this.'"

It was impossible to miss sadness trilling through Dent's voice as he looked now at the man he was at the start of his Bears career, and added, "I didn't know anything about pills. We didn't take those things at Tennessee State."