The NFL's past has come calling again. A past of abusing prescription drugs and painkillers, and a culture of coercion.
A past with men like Richard Dent, a Hall of Famer and a plaintiff in a new lawsuit against the NFL further exposing a sordid part of the league's history. Dent was on ESPN recently, and it was not pretty. He was barely able to speak coherently.
Dent has always been a fast talker and occasional dealer of non sequiturs, but there was something different this time. He sounded, at times, like he was unable to string two sentences together. This is not the Dent I remember. Something is clearly wrong.
Some will say it's another day, another lawsuit—that the players are being greedy. A money grab. And maybe there are players who are joining the suit to get quick cash. But then there are players like Marcellus Wiley, who played in the NFL for a decade and has had a steady media jobs since leaving the league. He doesn't need cash. He's fine. He has a story to tell as the NFL's past comes calling again.
Wiley was playing for one team when he was told by a team doctor that he had a strained groin. As a result, Wiley says he was regularly injected with painkillers the entire season. As the season went on, the shots kept coming. Doctors told him he was fine, keep playing, keep taking the shots.
After the season, a specialist not affiliated with the team told Wiley he didn't have a strained groin. He had a torn abdominal wall. The specialist said it was the worst such tear he'd ever seen.
Wiley also told the story of how before doing one of his television shows recently, his entire body seized up. It was later determined during a three-day hospital stay that he had suffered renal failure. His kidneys had shut down. Wiley was 39. He'd taken the painkiller Toradol for years, and this was one of the side effects.
Wiley says he will likely join this latest lawsuit against the NFL, which alleges players were given powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories to keep them on the field, failing to warn them about the long-term dangers. Wiley told Bleacher Report on Thursday he was potentially joining because "the negligence of the NFL must be unveiled so the future generation is properly informed. Not just the rewards, but the risks and consequences."
To the players who have sued the NFL, this is about accountability. As players, they were always told to be accountable—to each other, to their coaches, to their organizations. To them, the plaintiffs, some of the very same people who told them to be accountable, haven't been themselves. The lawsuit—this one as well as the concussion one—is the players' way of making the NFL accountable for its past deeds.
The lawsuits have that and one other thing in common: Both allege that the NFL did not share pertinent information with the players so the players would keep playing, keep the NFL machine going, at the expense of their future health.
The NFL strongly denies this, but proving its case is an entirely different matter. The NFL settled the first concussion case (and that settlement has yet to be fully approved by the court) saying it did nothing wrong.
Few in the general public will have sympathy for these players. Particularly since it's a pill-popping general public. But we know the risks now. Then, the risks were far more murky, the doctors' relationships with players far less ethical.
"My biggest point is that painkillers—pills as discussed here and injections like Toradol—are a major issue," said Will Carroll, Bleacher Report's sports medicine expert. "I'm not sure the NFL could exist without painkillers. The medical issue here is informed consent, not painkillers. If athletes weren't told, weren't part of the decision, then the doctors are way out over their skis. If Ronnie Lott wants to cut off his finger, fine. He makes that decision.
"The other issue I have is the conflict between doctor-patient and team. The team interferes with the normal relationship with an inherent conflict. The team pays the doctors to make players perform, not to heal them. Who is their ultimate alliance with, especially for the doctors who pay for the privilege and make so much money off touting they're the team doc?"
The culture of football in the 1970s, '80s, '90s and even into the 2000s is different than the culture now. The league has done a great deal to make the game, well, less barbaric. Yet there is no question the league's past is filled with horrible abuse and team doctors who had a conflict of interest. Stories of large bowls filled with prescription pills, players ingesting them like they're candy. Doctors who had a conflict of interest—selling out their player patients while being paid by the team. There's no question that happened.
Players have told me about the lines, 10 and 15 deep, of players waiting for their Toradol injections. That did happen.
Kyle Turley, who is part of the suit, says half of the NFL players he played with either are addicted to painkillers or have been in the past.
Did the players have a choice? Of course. But that's a simpleton question. The real question is: What did the NFL know? Did doctors, as in Wiley's case, repeatedly inject Toradol numerous times, knowing there was a risk of horrendous side effects years later? Did doctors not inform players, hoping to keep the players on the field?
What these lawsuits are doing is continuing to show the ugly side of a glamorized, popular sport that dominates TV ratings and the American consciousness but has always had, and still has, an ugly side. That ugly side, the history of that ugly side, hasn't gone away. It's a reminder of what the league once was and what it did to achieve its popularity.
The NFL covered up a lot of its blemishes in order to become the prettiest sports league on the block.
Sure, players don't have to play football. The same way a miner doesn't have to go underground and dig for minerals. Miners decide to take those risks, but they have a right to make a company accountable if its equipment or practices are faulty.
Players could have done their own research into these drugs, but remember, to many players, especially in previous decades, team doctors were highly trusted. Doc said, "Take this." Players just took it. They assumed the doctor looked out for them over the team. Now, there is a great deal more cynicism about the team doctors. In years past, doctors were almost like gods.
It's here again. The NFL's past.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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