Documents unsealed in a lawsuit by 1,800 former NFL players provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how team and league medical personnel plied players with powerful painkillers for years, often in apparent violation of federal drug laws.
The lawsuit being heard by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup in the northern district of California has been moving through the court system for more than two years. Alsup ruled last July to begin discovery, allowing plaintiffs' lawyers to interview potential witnesses and gather documents such as e-mails and memos from the teams related to the case.
The documents appear to show a cavalier attitude toward the storage, transport and distribution of controlled substances, as well as prescription medicines, which the lawsuit contends were often obtained illegally.
"Here is week 17's fiasco," began a Jan. 17, 2008 e-mail from Minnesota Vikings head trainer Eric Sugarman to team doctors and medical personnel. "The following items did not match up this week. …"
His e-mail goes on to detail how medications like Ambien, a sedative, and Toradol, a post-surgical painkiller, were distributed to players and not accurately tracked by the team's dispensing records.
"1. Total of 16 Ambien given out was recorded — however only 11 Ambien were missing from the kit. 2. Total of 21 Toradol shots were recorded — however only 20 Toradol shots were missing from the kit. 3. Total of 1 Diphenhydramine shots were missing with no record of dispensing."
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email to the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the documents before they were unsealed, that the "clubs and their medical staffs are all in compliance with the Controlled Substances Act. … Any claim or suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong."
Yet several of exhibits gathered by the plaintiffs' lawyers regarding past behavior by the teams appear to contradict the league's statement.
"Can you have your office fax a copy of your DEA certificate to me?" Paul Sparling, the Cincinnati Bengals' head trainer wrote in a 2009 email. "I need it for my records when the NFL 'pill counters' come to see if we are doing things right. Don't worry, I'm pretty good at keeping them off the trail!"
The number of painkillers and other prescription-strength medications given to players during 2012, according to a March 2013 league document from NFL medical adviser Lawrence Brown, would average out to six or seven pain pills or injections per player per week. Brown concluded the average team prescribed nearly 5,800 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and 2,200 doses of controlled medications to its players.
"The documents, emails and testimony referenced in the complaint are the tip of the iceberg," lead plaintiffs' attorney Steve Silverman said.
In addition to alleging repeated violations of the federal Controlled Substances Act, the lawsuit contends players were routinely given drugs without information or regard for their long-term health.
"And they achieve their ends through a business plan in which every Club employee — general managers, coaches, doctors, trainers and players — has a financial interest in returning players to the game as soon as possible," the lawsuit claims. "Everyone's job and salary depend on this simple fact."
The lawsuit also notes that NFL officials made a number of efforts to bring teams into compliance with federal law. The league warned them to exert strict control over distribution of medications and tighten-up record-keeping procedures, hiring an independent agency called SportPharm to provide auditing standards and manage the process.
"Physicians should prescribe controlled substances in a manner that is consistent with the standard of the medical community … not the NFL medical community," then-league medical adviser Dr. Ellliot Pellman wrote in a Sept. 20, 2010 e-mail to the trainers of the Steelers and Broncos.
The NFL also consulted on several occasions with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which staged a surprise game-day investigation of at least a half-dozen visiting teams in 2014 to learn whether those teams' medical staffs were travelling with controlled substances. None were found in violation of federal laws, though the lawsuit contends a DEA employee tipped the teams off in advance.
But the court documents also reveal doubts raised by team and league physicians and medical staff about the seriousness of those efforts even before the DEA surprise search.
"I expect no immediate guidance from Dr. Brown or Dr. Pellman," longtime Packers trainer Pepper Burruss wrote his Steelers counterpart in May 2010, "other than 'cover your own behind.' "