Now that the World Cup is (finally!) over, we can talk about the other kind of football for a minute. I’ll admit that American football is something I typically spend even less time thinking about than soccer (let’s just say that my friends don’t bring me to trivia night for the sports questions). It was only when I learned that the NFL is a hotbed of prescription drug abuse that I suddenly found myself taking an interest in the hitherto unappealing world of pro football.
Pigskins and Pills: A Brief History
The DEA is currently investigating painkiller abuse in NFL locker rooms, reaching out to former players to learn how Vicodin, Percodan and other pills were handed out like candy in the 80s and 90s. The investigation was inspired in part by a class action lawsuit filed on May 20 in a San Francisco federal court. On behalf of 1,300 NFL retirees, lawyers have accused the league of illegally providing prescription pills without explaining the consequences—such as the fact that those things are addictive as hell and chemical kissing cousins to heroin. The suit named nine plaintiffs including Jim McMahon, Richard Dent and Marcellus Wiley, whose names I’m guessing are familiar to those who know about sportsy things.
Court papers reveal that the team doctors and coaches freely dispensed pills without any warnings about their effects, and players often helped themselves to the medicine cabinet. I guess none of the players had seen an episode of House, though I guess you probably don’t have time for TV when you’re busy ramming your head into another man’s torso. “We’d take handfuls of stuff out of there,” said Ray Grimes of the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, who developed an addiction that outlasted his athletic career. “There was no accountability.” McMahon, former quarterback for the Chicago Bears, admitted to gobbling up 100 Percocets a month even during the offseason.
The Risk of a Quick Fix
While the drugs numbed players’ pain and allowed them to play through injury, in the long run this made the injuries worse. Pain is our body’s way of letting us know something’s wrong—for instance, when we’ve been slammed against the ground by a 300-pound man one too many times. With the help of “a constant diet of pills,” McMahon’s fellow Bear Keith van Horne played an entire season with a broken leg (seriously?). Similarly, narcotics buoyed Hall of Famer Dent through eight games on a broken foot, which led to permanent nerve damage.
And when tolerance builds, pills may not be enough. Former Jets quarterback Ray Lucas left the NFL with so much pain from his sports-related injuries that he turned to street drugs instead. Meanwhile, former 49er Jeremy Newberry attributes his dire combination of kidney failure, high blood pressure and severe headaches to the onslaught of drugs he received while playing football.
The NFL Has a Rep, And Some Brains, to Protect
The DEA is trying to keep their investigation somewhat hush-hush, which doesn’t tend to work when the New York Daily News gets wind of something. Former prosecutor and sports agent Robert Boland suggested that the NFL may be able to escape liability by pinning the blame on individual teams. But regardless, the DEA investigation will benefit players by uncovering information inaccessible in a civil suit.
The drug investigation is running parallel to a probe into the issue of concussions and brain injury in professional football. In other words, football will mess you up for life. As strange as it seems, I actually identify with the quintessential jocks more than I ever thought possible now that I know they’re a bunch of junkies. Next time the SuperBowl comes around, maybe I’ll actually watch the game.
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