The NFL has a drug problem, but this problem won't show up on any league-sanctioned drug tests.
As the pot-smoking epidemic continues to deteriorate the family-like image of football’s royalty, the real cesspool of life-ruining drug addiction carries on under the guise of institutionalized medicine.
Just recently, the NFL has been delivered yet another PR blow to its carefully manicured reputation.
As reported by Deadspin's Tim Marchman (h/t Scribd.com), eight former NFL players were named plaintiffs on a lawsuit in a federal court that includes more than 600 retired players over medications they say were obtained illegally and given as painkillers to numb injuries without consideration for side effects or future health concerns.
This lawsuit is in the early stages, and the number of players hopping on board is expected to grow. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported that former NFL player Marcellus Wiley is considering adding his name to the list as well.
According to Freeman, "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."
Players claim severe injuries, such as broken legs and ankles, were intentionally kept from guys who were instead fed and/or injected with large quantities of medication like Cortisone, Toradol and Vicodin to mask the pain, as well as sleep aids such as Ambien.
Some say that after years of free pills from team physicians, they retired from the league addicted to the painkillers and are now facing troubling health consequences such as kidney failure and other debilitating conditions.
The developing ordeal seems to be met with mixed reactions by former players, media members and the general public.
My Column: Ex-Giant Carl Banks: If you can't play in the NFL without painkillers, then don't suit up: http://t.co/T0Lx9BTx93— Gary Myers (@garymyersNYDN) May 24, 2014
Dent: NFL Treated Me 'Like a Race Horse': Ex-players Richard Dent and Jeremy Newberry, both named in a lawsuit... http://t.co/svaZl7srtx— Health Issues Now (@healthissuesnow) May 23, 2014
When Bleacher Report’s expert in sports medicine, Will Carroll, was asked if he could realistically imagine team physicians ignoring players’ overall health in order to keep them on a football field, he had this to say via email:
"Sadly, yes. Some of these doctors pay for the privilege of being in there. Do you think they'll do anything less than exactly what the team wants? How long term do you think if you're the doctor—this week? This year? So many athletes know they'll have long-term back, leg or knee issues and they're OK with that, but should the doctor allow that?"
The detail in Carroll's statement that really stood out here is that doctors are actually paying the teams rather than being paid by the team. That relationship seems inherently counterintuitive.
The players who filed this lawsuit bring some valid concerns to the table that might need revision. For example, it is absolutely the duty of trusted members in the medical profession to understand and openly share everything they know about a drug they are doling out in high doses to players.
But was it common practice in the NFL for trainers and doctors to withhold essential knowledge of drugs they prescribe? From what I’ve experienced, seen and heard during my time in the NFL, this is very likely an accurate depiction of the status quo.
During my brief three years immersed in NFL locker rooms from around the league, I can say that medical protocol, specifically surrounding the nature of the distribution of medicine, always felt like the Wild West.
At the time, I always looked at the liberal, carefree nature in which medicine was handed out as one of the perks of the job. Despite this, things never felt like they were out of control or being abused relative to the stresses and pain endured from the sport.
During the early years of my football career, I found myself relying upon a drug that was a combination of aspirin and caffeine, known simply as Pain-Off. The title alone is quite telling of the professional football world.
Though this particular medication combines two drugs commonly found in daily life, they were still something I took enough of to be concerned about. I quickly got to a point where I was unable to practice or mask my body aches without taking this relatively mild cocktail.
There was no staff member or trainer concerned about the frequency with which I took these pills, as they obviously ranked low on the list of pain management.
After a year of taking this medication, I made the decision to back off as much as possible, electing to only take the pills during padded practices and on game days. In truth, I was worried about what taking those pills on a daily basis could do to me. But my situation was different than those who were playing the majority of snaps on Sundays.
As a professional football player, I never had to deal with the unimaginable pain and soreness of playing 60 or more snaps per game against the biggest, fastest and strongest men in the world. But with what little samplings I did have to experience, I can completely understand how masking the pain becomes a necessary routine for these guys.
Toward the end of my career, I can remember being hit on my shoulder area in a way that seemed no different than any other time before it—only this time it was accompanied by a sharp, excruciating pain in my collarbone.
I walked off to the sideline holding my shoulder in pain and went over to the team’s trainer for an exam. My collarbone seemed raised about half an inch higher on one side than the other, as if a ligament that holds it down had snapped off. The trainer suggested a cortisone shot, which I quickly agreed to. My thought was to get pain-free and back on the field as quickly as possible.
The shot was like instant relief to my shoulder and allowed me to finish the game. But the pain would return throughout the season, and I received this shot at least three or four more times. The last few times came at my adamant persistence. The doctor warned me that repeated injections in the area would weaken ligaments and could increase the chances of rupture in the future.
I appreciated his warning but still opted for the shot. Without the cortisone injections I received during that period of time, I realistically don’t believe I would've been able to compete effectively. I personally made the decision to be injected with cortisone and was told rather openly what the consequences were.
But this is not how things in the NFL always work.
I remember seeing guys line up for their pregame injections of the wonder drug Toradol, frequently referred to as the "T-train" by players. A former teammate of mine with the Raiders, Akbar Gbajabiamila, wrote about this in an article for NFL.com back in 2012.
In the article, he described how he discovered the drug and what it was like in the locker rooms before the game:
Guys were lined up like a cattle call to get the shot from the team doctors. I saw one teammate after the next getting injected, in either the shoulder or buttocks, with a concoction of Toradol and Vitamin B-12.
He described the first time he tried Toradol:
One veteran player looked at me and said, 'Take a shot of that and you won't feel a thing when you play.' I jumped in line, and that was the beginning of my Toradol dependency. After my first shot (let it be known, I hate needles), I heard someone yell across the locker room, 'Once you get on the T-train, you won't get off.'
After trying Toradol, Gbajabiamila said that he too became a frequent user:
Every game I played after that I took a shot of Toradol. I felt like it gave me an edge, but in reality I was just on an even playing field because this was customary in every locker room around the league. Any game-day pain you felt disappeared until you woke up the next morning.
Personally, I was never injected with any medication other than Cortisone, but I could quite easily see myself jumping on the T-train if I had a more substantial NFL career.
For those who question the decision of these players who subjected themselves to copious amounts of medication, keep in mind that incredible pain can make you do a lot of things you never thought possible.
Consider this: The Monday after playing a complete game feels similar to the day after a severe car accident. Imagine layering on that feeling week after week from August until December.
Does the NFL need to change its policies on how it distributes medicine?
B/R's Carroll thinks things have already changed, but there’s still a long way to go, saying, "The questions about Toradol really happened quickly, which surprised me and a lot of people. The worry for me is less about painkillers as it is about informed consent."
He added, "If a doctor is shooting someone up to get them out there (on the field), that's a perversion of the doctor-patient relationship. I hate the idea that doctors are paying to be 'the official provider of the [insert team here]' or whatever, but it’s there."
Carroll's potential solution to this conflict of interest? "I'd love to see the NFL put a doctor on the officiating crew—an independent guy who could overrule the team’s doctor."
Such a rule would at least prevent players from being exploited during game-time situations. That is, assuming they were ever exploited at all.
Most of the time, these medications in question were given to players after games as a way to save guys from the inevitable pain that follows. If they had been denied their medication and left to deal with the pain on their own, I doubt they’d be very happy. Nonetheless, a critical component to this case is that players absolutely have the right to be fully informed about any drug administered to them.
So what happens when a guy says he won't take those drugs but will control his pain in a more natural way?
Well, if you’re Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, you could get suspended for an entire season. For those who don’t already know, Gordon is one of the most talented rising young stars in the NFL today and has a history of marijuana use. His recent failed drug test could have him sidelined for the entire season.
Despite the stigma attached with marijuana, one thing has become abundantly clear: Opting for pot is a far better alternative than handfuls of Vicodin and Toradol. As many already know, THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, has been known to manage pain, help with sleep and ease the stresses associated with football.
Obviously, smoking before a game or practice is a horrible idea, but before bed or during times of leisure is another thing entirely.
The hypocrisy of punishing guys for marijuana use when much more damaging drugs are being passed out like candy around the NFL is a prime example of the arbitrary nature in which the league rewards and punishes player behavior.
In a New York Times article from 2012 by Ken Belson and Mary Pilon, New York Giants associate team physician Dr. Scott Rodeo said he was aware of adverse side effects to Toradol as far back as the mid-'90s. Some of the known risks include increased bleeding and gastrointestinal damage.
He, along with other doctors, also concluded that the risks associated with cumulative doses of Toradol could lead to health issues like kidney damage. These are the same ailments former NFL center Jeremy Newberry is currently dealing with (he's one of the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit).
It’s worth adding that there are no known long-term health risks associated with marijuana use. In fact, a UCLA study back in 2006 concluded that heavy marijuana use does not lead to lung cancer. The study also suggests that pot may surprisingly inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors.
To be clear, I’m in no way advocating that NFL players take up pot as an alternative to prescription pain medication. I simply don’t see how we can take a year out of a man’s career for inhaling something that sprouts straight from the earth, when the real filth of the NFL’s drug habit has been indoctrinated into locker room culture for years.
It’s also important to note that there are many players from both past and present who manage their prescription medication in a balanced way. They understand that the best thing they can do is maximize their participation in preventative medicine, such as supplements, maintain a healthy diet and receive routine massages and stretching, coupled with acupuncture.
So, while society collectively judges Josh Gordon’s unorthodox methods for coping with the NFL as just another boneheaded, selfish act from an immature player, remember, these are the same people who ignorantly, yet silently, accept the hardcore drug pushers, disguised as trusted members of the medical profession. They also say nothing about the numerous drug addicts the sport has created because the drugs have been FDA approved and allow their favorite players to take the field every week.
Maybe as fans, it's better not to be aware of what these players sacrifice to play the game. But when you open your eyes to reality, pot should be the last thing we need to concern ourselves about or punish players for.
As for the prescribed medications, players will always be given a choice in this matter (until a full-blown addiction is developed), but when legacies and millions of dollars are on the line, the choices seem limited. When athletes are faced with the choice to medicate or suffer through the pain, at least they deserve the right to a completely informed decision from a neutral-party professional that has the player’s best interest at heart.
As a diehard fan of football, I can only hope they can find the necessary balance to treat these players adequately, keeping in mind the extreme nature of the sport and unusual pain involved to its participants.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report.