WASHINGTON — Opening another legal attack on the NFL over the long-term health of its athletes, a group of retired players accused the league in a lawsuit Tuesday of supplying them with powerful painkillers and other drugs that kept them in the game but led to serious complications later in life.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages on behalf of more than 500 ex-athletes, charges the NFL with putting profits ahead of players’ health.
To speed injured athletes’ return to the field, team doctors and trainers dispensed drugs illegally, without obtaining prescriptions or warning of the possible side effects, the plaintiffs contend.
Some football players said they were never told they had broken bones and were instead fed pills to mask the pain. One said that instead of surgery, he was given anti-inflammatory drugs and excused from practices so he could play in games. Others said that after years of free pills from the NFL, they retired addicted to painkillers.
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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in Atlanta for the league’s spring meetings, said, “Our attorneys have not seen the lawsuit and obviously I have been in meetings all day.”
The case comes less than a year after the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle lawsuits from thousands of retired players who accused it of concealing the risks of concussions. A federal judge has yet to approve the settlement, expressing concern the amount is too small.
The new lawsuit was filed in federal court in San Francisco and names eight players as plaintiffs, including three members of the NFL champion 1985 Chicago Bears: quarterback Jim McMahon, Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent and offensive lineman Keith Van Horne.
More than 500 other unnamed former players have signed on, according to lawyers, who are seeking class-action status for the case.
“The NFL knew of the debilitating effects of these drugs on all of its players and callously ignored the players’ long-term health in its obsession to return them to play,” said Steven Silverman, an attorney for the players.
As a result of masking their pain with drugs, players developed heart, lung and nerve ailments; kidney failure; and chronic injuries to muscles, bones and ligaments, the lawsuit alleges.
According to the lawsuit, players were routinely given drugs that included narcotic painkillers Percodan, Percocet and Vicodin, anti-inflammatories such as Toradol, and sleep aids such as Ambien.
Toradol, which can be injected, was described as “the current game-day drug of choice of the NFL.” The medication may raise the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure or intestinal bleeding.
After receiving numbing injections and pills before kickoff, players got more drugs and sleep aids after games, “to be washed down by beer,” the lawsuit says.
Kyle Turley, who played for three teams in his eight-year career, said drugs were “handed out to us like candy.”
“There was a room set up near the locker room and you got in line,” Turley said. “Obviously, we were grown adults and we had a choice. But when a team doctor is saying this will take the pain away, you trust them.”