Painkillers in NFL? Who really cares?

Posted: May 23, 2014

A LONG, LONG time ago, an Eagles player - one of those freakishly cut offensive linemen from back then, with no body fat at all - lost his mind on the practice field, just attacking everybody he could reach. It was quite a scene, a classic 'roid-rage incident. The next day, the club told reporters that they weren't sure, but they thought it might have been some kind of allergic reaction to a bee sting, and we all wrote it down and put it in the paper the next day. We were such idiots.

A few years after that, a guy who played for the Eagles admitted to me that he was using steroids. He was worried about the effects the drug might be having on him and frustrated that he would not be able to stay in the league without them. The conversation was entirely off the record. I tried to persuade him to go on the record, but he said it would embarrass his family, and that was that. We never talked about it again.

At the Atlanta Olympics, I was standing outside one of the venues, talking on a pay phone; yes, really. I hung up and somebody starting yelling my name. This guy was walking toward me, waving. I didn't recognize him. Ten feet away, I still didn't recognize him. He started laughing and stuck out his hand and told me his name. He was an Eagles player I had covered for 3 or 4 years. He was a starting offensive lineman who had played at probably 280 pounds. Standing there, a decade after retiring, he might have weighed 200. It was as if somebody had stuck a pin in the Michelin Man. I apologized for not recognizing him. "It's OK," he said. "I have, uh, changed."

In 1991, after Buddy Ryan was fired as the Eagles' coach, management leaked a story to the Inquirer that painted Ryan's tenure in a bad light, claiming the players were out of control, using Jerome Brown as the poster child - that he played wild card games on the team plane and failed to pay tens of thousands in gambling debts to his teammates.

Brown was dismayed by the story, genuinely hurt. He had just played in a playoff game with a separated shoulder, only because - as I remember him claiming - he took a dozen injections of painkillers. He did that for the team, and this was how they repaid him? A very fun, very immature guy grew up very quickly that day.

We would talk about some of this stuff, the reporters who covered the team. A consensus somehow developed, and I'm not sure how, about what body parts they would be willing to shoot up to mask the pain and what parts they wouldn't dare shoot up. Knees, for instance - we always believed they were out-of-bounds. Then it became ankles, then "weight-bearing joints." Again, I don't know where this came from - probably just the osmosis of the locker room - but it lent at least a patina of ethics to this conversation that regular people never have with their doctors.

Of course, there were limits to what players and doctors would do so that somebody could play. There had to be limits. Didn't there?

This all comes to mind because of the most recent class-action lawsuit against the NFL by its former players. This one, led by Jim McMahon - the Super Bowl winning quarterback with the Bears who did a stint with the Eagles in the early 1990s - details a culture of drug abuse that the plaintiffs claim was institutional: uppers taken with the morning coffee in the locker room, painkillers (some of them narcotics) to practice and play - dozens of guys lined up in the training room with their drawers half down, waiting for a needle - and then downers mixed with beer to help you sleep.

The result, say the plaintiffs, has been addiction and long-lasting physical harm that the players were never warned about. The suit claims, "Rather than allowing players the opportunity to rest and heal, the NFL has illegally and unethically substituted pain medications for proper health care to keep the NFL's tsunami of dollars flowing."

Is there legal liability here? No idea. Will the NFL end up trying to pay off these guys, just as it has attempted to pay off the former players suing over concussions? Almost certainly. Will this have any appreciable effect on the popularity of the league? Almost certainly not.

Why? Because you don't care - which is your perfect right. Truth be told, if I really cared, I probably would have found a way to get some of this stuff in the paper when it was happening. But I didn't, and most reporters didn't, and you didn't really care either way.

Because another press release arrived yesterday, heralding the fact that "Sunday Night Football" on NBC was the most-watched prime-time show for the third consecutive season. The popularity of the NFL is unquestioned. The demand for the product seems unquenchable.

The truth is, you are in the distinct minority if you have read this far. I would have been much better off writing a column about a free-agent kicker nicknamed Murderleg.

On Twitter: @theidlerich


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