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NFL must be proactive on painkillers

5/27/2014 - NFL

Here we go again. The latest lawsuit filed against the NFL by a group of retired players provides fans with yet another peek at the league's ugly underbelly, claiming that teams knowingly and illegally supplied players with painkillers and anti-inflammatories to keep them on the field, all the while hiding the long-term dangers associated with such drug use.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a class-action settlement in which the league was accused of knowingly hiding the long-term consequences of concussions. Then, as now, teams were characterized as being more concerned with their bottom line than their players' health.

The merits of the latest lawsuit will be determined in time, but two things can be said with certainty: 1) The league and its teams have come a long way with regard to overseeing the use of painkillers and anti-inflammatories, almost certainly as a means of protecting themselves from lawsuits like the one that has been filed; and 2) there's still a long way to go, largely because players refuse to take responsibility for their long-term health.

To suit up on Sunday, they willingly fill their bodies with drugs that can dull the pain derived from playing a game that's so inherently violent and dangerous. Even guys who aren't even hurt or injured will take a painkilling injection before games to prepare their bodies for what's to come. Why? To keep their jobs. To support their families. To be there for their teammates. To sate their appetite for competition and glory.

The result in too many cases is that players are leaving the game addicted to painkillers or suffering from the consequences of long-term drug use. In fact, it's one of the more common issues affecting retirees who've enrolled in The Trust, a program sponsored by the players' association and the league to help players transition into second careers after leaving the game. Even those who aren't part of the program have cautionary stories.

For instance, Terrell Fletcher was a running back with the Chargers from 1995 to 2002. During that time, he had five surgeries and injuries to his ankles, ribs, shoulders, wrists, knees, feet and hamstrings. At 5-foot-8 and 196 pounds, he always felt like he was under the microscope as a little guy playing among big men, so when his body ached or was injured, he willingly accepted painkillers.

About eight months after retiring, he began experiencing bad back pain. He had never injured that part of his body from 785 offensive touches and numerous special-teams assignments, so he got himself checked out. He learned he was having kidney issues, he was told by a doctor, from the "gunk" that had built up in his body from years of prescription drug use. He participated in a four-week homeopathic cleansing program, after which the pain disappeared.

"At the time you're playing, you don't think of the possible consequences," Fletcher once told me. "You're so driven by competing, you're so driven by not letting your teammates down, you're so driven by the pressure of having to stay on the football field because the competition is so heavy that somebody will have your spot if you spend too many days hurt. You're so driven by all those things that you're willing to do everything short of what's illegal to stay on the football field. So you do your ice, you do your [muscle stimulation], you do all your treatment that's necessary; but if a shot is offered, you don't turn it down. If medication is offered, you don't turn it down -- especially in those competitive days of camp. I knew guys who would take pain medication before they would go out to the field, medication that would make them woozy or drowsy. They would pop it just to knock the edge off the pain in practice."

Fletcher, an ordained minister who's one of the Chargers' two team chaplains, continued: "This is the culture of who we are. Pro football players are warriors. It's almost a sign of weakness if you refuse to step out on the field without doing all the precautions necessary to get yourself out there. It's preached by the coaches, it's preached by the other players. You have this internal voice in your own head saying, I've got to go out here and compete. I've got to go out here and compete. It's game day. I'm driven by the crowd, I'm driven by the competition, I don't want to let my teammates down. You're not thinking, Oh, I might need a kidney flush in five years."

Players are never going to protect themselves from themselves, which is why the league needs to do more. Faced with massive lawsuits and the call for independent neurologists at games, it addressed the brain-trauma issue by establishing protocols and baseline tests that had to be passed before a player could return to the field after sustaining a concussion. Something similar needs to be done with painkillers and anti-inflammatories.

As much as the league preaches player safety, it has never made sense to me that clubs will hold an injured player out of practice all week, shoot him up on Sunday so he can play the very game that caused the injury, then repeat the process the next week and beyond, if necessary.

Before you tell me that players know what they're doing, so the burden of responsibility rests solely with them, consider this: We build cars that can exceed 100 mph yet have freeway speed limits of 55, 60 and 70 mph. Why? In part to protect us from us.

For too long the league seemed more concerned with the product than the players. Though there was no written mandate of which we're aware, the common perception was that teams wanted to keep key players on the field by any means necessary, even if it meant administering powerful and dangerous drugs to them. Some clubs recognized the liability of such a practice, because as recently as two years ago they were requiring players to sign medical waivers before receiving Toradol, a powerful painkiller that's typically used after surgery. The players' association brought an end to that practice by filing a grievance and instructing its players not to sign the document.

Today, the league tests players more frequently for abuses of prescription meds as part of its collectively bargained drug policy. It also is more vigilant when monitoring how teams dispense medication, which could be because the Saints and Chargers were targets of separate Drug Enforcement Agency probes involving Vicodin in recent years.

Still, more needs to be done because the long-term consequences are significant and the players, in general, will never protect themselves from themselves. As personnel people like to say, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.