DEA raids NFL teams after Sunday games

Still reeling from scandals involving domestic abuse and child abuse, the NFL was hit again with bad news.

Drug Enforcement Agency agents raided two NFL teams after Sunday's game looking for violations of the Controlled Substance Act.  It is widely known in league circles that many team physicians dispense powerful painkillers before and during games, allowing players to continue playing but at a cost to their future health.

Washington Post:

 On Sunday, during another game day watched by tens of millions, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration launched surprise inspections of the medical staff of at least NFL teams as part of an ongoing investigation into prescription drug abuse in the league.

The inspection, as reported by The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins and Rick Maese, targeted the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. It was driven by suspicions that some NFL teams dole out drugs like candy to keep players playing, a violation of the Controlled Substances Act. The roots of that suspicion spring from a lawsuit filed by more than 1,300 retired NFL players earlier this year in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The suit alleged that NFL medical staffs capriciously pump players full of powerful — and highly addictive — narcotics such as Percocet and Vicodin.

The lawsuit and the investigation saddled the league with a fresh crisis in a season already overflowing with them. They will also likely rekindle the debate over the conflicts of interest encumbering team physicians — one created by competing oaths to their profession, their patients and to the teams that want players back on the field quickly. The “unholy alliance,” as it’s been called, can be a complicated balancing act for doctors compounded by business interests, medical ethics, celebrity, rabid fans, millions of dollars — and players themselves.

The problem has been around a while. “The ordinary patient desires a long-term cure, not a quick fix,” said a 1997 article in Sports Lawyer Journal, adding that players are often willing to assume greater risk than normal patients. ” … Professional athletes feel pressure to play from teammates, other athletes, friends, media, fans, team managers, owners, physicians, and themselves. … Fans often believe that highly paid professional athletes have a duty to play for their team even if there is high risk to the athlete’s health.”

If you have $100 million invested long-term in a player like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, you don't want a doctor who is going to keep him on the sidelines.  Such was the case with former Bears QB Jim McMahon:

Lawsuits joined by thousands of former players said that medical personnel not only abet players’ wish for quick fixes, but encouraged them while obfuscating the perils of their drug use. Former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon said he was one of the victims. He “received hundreds, if not thousands, of injections from doctors and pills from trainers, including but not limited to [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs] such as Toradol, Percocet, Novocain injections, amphetamines, sleeping pills and muscle relaxers,” court documents state. He said the NFL didn’t tell him about the side effects, and his use slowly bloomed into addiction that led him to take 100 Percocets per month, even during the off-season.

There is no professional sport that doesn't utilize modern pharmacueticals to keep its players on the court or on the field.  Big-time college sports are not immune, either.  But pro football is the worst offender by far.  This is partly because of the nature of the game.  When 250-lb. linebackers collide at full speed with 210-lb. running backs, something has to give – usually the human body.  The toll this takes on the future health of players is told in the statistics; pro football players die younger and suffer from more debilitating disease later in life, like arthritis and delayed symptoms from brain injuries, than the average American.

But would players change their ways if they could?  Without pressure from teams and doctors?  That's the counter-argument – players know what they're getting into and take the drugs because of their love of the game.  Judging by the numbers of players suing the league over this issue, that argument doesn't hold water.

As long as NFL teams are getting billions of dollars from TV networks, and as long as those networks are making billions off the game, it is not likely that anything more than token reforms will be made.  And unless players begin to demand change, many more of them will retire and live the rest of their lives in severe pain.