We all acknowledge that the NFL is a business – and a big business, pure and simple. Yet, in the past year we have seen it being assailed by lawsuits, which would be unheard of three decades ago.
The NFL has just come to a settlement over the concussion issue, but even that is now under serious review by a federal judge in Philadelphia who believes that the amount is just not enough for the former NFL players who have suffered for years as a result of perceived indifference and apathy on the part of the cartel which is the NFL.
Now, the NFL is being sued again. This time it has been charged that a systemic application of pain killers, sleeping pills, uppers, downers, and concoctions of drug “cocktails” so bizarre that it reminds one of some of the “pill parties” which ran rampant in the 1960’s, has plagued professional football at least since 1968.
On 20 May 2014, eight former NFL players filed a lawsuit in San Francisco charging that NFL teams knowingly gave players a variety of prescription drugs and injections illegally to keep those players on the field.
Eight players are cited as plaintiffs including Richard Dent, Jim McMahon, Jeremy Newberry, Roy Green, J.D. Hill, Keith Van Horne, Ron Stone, and Ron Pritchard. They are represented by the Baltimore firm of Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin, and White who also represent NHL players in a concussion-related lawsuit.
This drug case could become a class-action suit affecting 600 or more players who played from 1968 – 2008.
The plaintiffs all claimed to have been plied with the pain killers, sleeping pills and the like, but were never informed of any injuries they had sustained. What is even more disturbing is the fact that to a player, they were too fearful of not playing since they might not have their contracts renewed. Playing was expected and the team trainers and physicians “took care” of their pain.
It is not as if we were not aware of such practices. We have had at least two “cautionary tales” slip across our conscious awareness over the past three decades.
The first that comes to mind is the novel-made-movie, North Dallas Forty, a yarn about a fictitious professional team in Dallas Texas – anyone heard of the Cowboys? In it, the players were not painted in a very complimentary light, nor were the coaches, the owners and, oh well, you get the idea. It was written by Peter Gent who played wide receiver for the Cowboys from 1964 through 1968.
The 1973 movie starred Nick Nolte. It was apparent from the first scene that drugs were as common as sugar on Wheaties for breakfast. Unfortunately, the abuse of drugs was lost in the overall abuse of the players across the board.
The other movie came out in 1999 starring Al Pacino, as an ill-cast professional football coach, titled Any Given Sunday. The same abuse of players and drug use is a significant element of the plot, embodied by Dr. Harvey Mandrake played by James Woods.
The truly sad underlying theme of players being given all manner of “medication” to keep them playing, was lost in the panoply of a plethora of incidents so brutally blatant that viewers ultimately become inured to their common-place practice. Only Woods’ “Dr. Mandrake” does not escape culpability.
I cannot recall anyone who saw either of these movies or read the book, ever commenting on the brazen distribution of drugs to keep players on the field.
And THAT is the truly sad part of all this. It seems that we have accepted it as common practice in the NFL.
It would seem that we “fans”, we loyal and dedicated devotees of “our” team care more about winning than we care about what “our” team mates suffer – not only on the field, but in the locker rooms, in the training rooms, in the team physicians’ offices, or in the years after their playing days have ended.
We have become so accustomed to the “wow” hit, the overpowering block, the fantastic catch that we seem to have lost sight of what these men have gone through and continue to go through to make a living “entertaining” us by abusing their bodies and their minds.
Let me share with you an account from the lawsuit:
And the named Plaintiffs experienced the same post-game ritual of trainers handing out medications, including pain killers and sleeping aids, to be washed down by beer. When teams were traveling by plane, the NFL trainers would have the medications in a briefcase and would walk down the aisle, handing out pills or placing them on players’ seats in contravention of Federal law while the players were provided with beer at the back of the plane. Doctors were aboard these flights, knew the players were drinking alcohol and being provided various medications, yet said nothing to them about the risks of these medications, or of mixing these medications with alcohol.
And this is only part of the eighty-five page lawsuit.
But here’s the strange thing about it all – while we fans seem to “care”, there is no outrage being vent! We seem to be more upset when Johnny Manziel goes to Las Vegas for the Memorial Day Weekend. So I pose this, why do we seem to be ambivalent? Do we think that these men have made enough money, or too much money? Are we absolved along with the coaches, the trainers, the doctors and the owners because the players “knew what they were getting into”?
On top of all this, I am willing to bet that this case will take a rather long time to either settle or be heard in court for two reasons: 1) it is a PR nightmare for the NFL coming off the concussion case; and, 2) the NFL Players Association seems to bear some culpability here since it negotiated the terms of drug treatment.
Neither group really wants this to get out because there are no winners! The NFL is bruised and battered already – and God only knows what the federal judge will determine in the concussion case settlement. The NFL Players’ Association may talk a good game but they do not want the sad facts of their poor negotiations regarding drug policy being made public.
And in the end, it will be the lawyers who pocket their “pound of flesh” from the settlement or judgment.
Football is the great American game, all due respect to the others. The NFL is a mega-billion dollar enterprise and holds most of the strings. We fans still want to vicariously fulfill our testosterone-filled dreams of conquest through our “Sunday Warriors”.
And men who love to play the game – men who have wives and families – men who want to live long and prosperous lives after their playing days – still put their minds and bodies on the line every Sunday.
But the real question may not be “How much more can the NFL take?” but rather, “How much more can we take?”
Dr. Arthur Ogden is Chair of Sports Management at the United States Sports Academy. He has worked in higher education for more than four decades. He has served as a college dean, vice-president, president, football coach, and athletic director. He is a published author and poet and writes a weekly column on issues facing America. He has also served on NCAA committees and on the All-American Football Selection Committee.