This weekend's competition in Wisconsin is a bit more intense than it was in your grade school gym class.
Former stars Richard Dent and Jim McMahon are among the former NFL players suing the league, alleging illegal and rampant misuse of pain-killing medications they claim led to debilitating injuries and long-term health problems.
In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco yesterday, McMahon claims he suffered a broken neck and a broken ankle during his career, but was given painkillers and pushed back on the field to play.
Here & Now’s sports analyst Mike Pesca discusses the lawsuit with host Jeremy Hobson.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
The NFL is facing another lawsuit from the men who played the game. This one from hundreds of former players claiming they were dosed with painkillers to keep them out on the field. In their lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court in San Francisco yesterday, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon says he even played with a broken neck and a broken ankle. He was given painkillers, sent back out.
Jeremy Newberry was a two-time Pro-Bowl center for the San Francisco 49ers. He remembers lines of players waiting for their shots before games. And he says no doctors or trainers ever warned him of the long-term effects of taking painkilling drugs, like Toradol.
JEREMY NEWBERRY: Nobody ever said nothing to the fact that this could cause you, you know, kidney failure in you.
YOUNG: Today, Newberry claims his kidney function is only about 30 percent.
Mike Pesca hosts the podcast The Gist at Slate.com, sports analyst for HERE AND NOW, and he joins us now.
And, Mike, tell us more about what they're claiming in this lawsuit.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Well, yeah. They're saying that there was illegal and rampant misuse of painkilling medications. And they're talking about debilitating injuries and long-term health problems.
So it's well-known that in the culture and the reality of the NFL, you play through pain, this is just what you do. And team doctors, who aren't always the ones who literally administer the pain medication, sometimes it's trainers and that was part of the lawsuit - give out these you know, it's sometimes described as like they pop pills just like its candy. And they get shot up before games and this always happens.
And then, 10, 12, 15 years later a lot of these former pros will look at the ravages it took on their body and wonder two things: the medication themselves, like Newberry was saying, does that have an effect on some organs, and also just, you know, the effect of playing with what could be crippling gain. You wouldn't do it to an animal and they're saying they shouldn't have done it to a human being.
YOUNG: Well, it's a couple of things. First of all, Jeremy Newberry's descriptions are incredible. He says it's like a cattle call. You have 25 guys standing in line with their pants down, waiting for a doctor who's got a hundred different syringes lined up. You walk through and they just stick you. And it was just about everybody was doing it before the game.
But talk about that playing in pain for a second. You say, you know, you wouldn't impose it on them. But it's sort of imposed on the culture. I mean we spoke with - who was it - Sports Illustrated Peter King, who said he felt partly responsible for Junior Seau's suicide, because as a journalist, he turned him into a hero for playing in pain.
So, you know, can the NFL say: Hey, wait a second, where did this start, was it us imposing it on you or did you also bring some of this to the table?
PESCA: Right, and so that'll get into some of the difficulties with the suit because, of course, many of these players have played through pain since they were young kids. And who is to say it started in the NFL?
Certainly the culture, the warrior culture, the warrior mentality, this is something that needs to be done, this is a necessary thing for our sport, pervades the sport at all levels of the sport. And the guys who were made the greatest heroes, you know, like the L.A. Rams' Jack Youngblood who played in the Super Bowl on a broken leg, I mean that story gets told again and again and again. Like, you know, stories of the 300 Spartans or something like this.
PESCA: I mean I think it probably occupies the same space in our collective consciousness. But the reality, so that's what the thought process is. I don't think the thought process began with 32 different NFL team owners, or the NFL commissioner. I think the players inhabit it as much as their bosses tell them that you have to play in pain, or don't even have to tell them. So it is definitely out there.
And that does kind of complicates the suit, too. I mean if you really want to talk about the legality, there are concepts like contributory negligence. So if it ever gets to an actual trial - and this may be would have happened with the concussion suit, too, where the NFL could say: OK, how much of it is on us and how much of it is on you. And I bet they could document players insisting that they wanted play through pain, they wanted to be seen as tough or they just wanted to earn a paycheck, continue to do so.
YOUNG: Yeah, right now we're hearing from players saying: I thought there was something wrong with my leg and they said there wasn't, but then I found out it was broken up.
But you mention the other suit, the concussion suit that was in 2013. And in that case, the NFL settled, $765 million, which a federal judge this year put a hold on because of fears that it might not be enough to cover the injured players. So that's still being discussed. But they were willing to settle.
So what do you think is going to happen with the pain lawsuit?
PESCA: OK. So that - this is the - it's important to talk about the issue. And I think that culturally it's unquestionably an issue with these painkillers. But as a legal matter - and I'm not a lawyer but I've talked to many - the concussion lawsuit was far from a certainty. I mean even to clear the hurdle, the NFL has a union and most of these rights are collectively bargained. And there was widespread disagreement if the players, if that concussions suit had gone to trial, would have even been able to say: Yes, this can even be a case, maybe we just bargained away these rights.
Also with the concussion suit, if you want to compare it to this suit, you know, with the case of concussions, there seem to be a lot of evidence that the NFL was actively suppressing investigations. They were, you know, filling boards, medical board with unqualified doctors. They were, you know, sticking their finger in the research that was being done.
They were - and I can't flat-out say that they were, you know, lying about the effects of concussion, but the book and the PBS special "League of Denial" documents over and over again how the NFL tried to, you know, perhaps shade the issue about how serious concussions were. There is nothing like that with painkillers.
And whereas individual doctors might now have fully disclosed, it seems to been an apples and oranges situation, and all I'm saying is that complicates the lawsuit. Furthermore, maybe the NFL settled the lawsuit for - with concussions for PR reasons. I don't know if there is that same PR clamor around the issue of painkillers.
And furthermore - I mean, this is like the eighth furthermore.
YOUNG: Further, furthermore.
PESCA: Yes, let's also say that, you know, the NFL really doesn't want football to be seen as a very dangerous sport for kids to play. I mean, that's where future pros come from. And I think a lot of parents are really worried about concussions. Are parents really - is it that scary and confusing, the effects of painkillers? I think everyone knows that just willy-nilly taking painkillers is a pretty dangerous thing.
So again, it doesn't exactly compare to the situation with concussions.
YOUNG: Well I don't know, though. We've only got about a minute left, but here in Boston we have a city council proposing a college athlete bill of rights that would force schools to not revoke scholarships if someone gets injured and pay for their medical injuries for the rest of their lives. That's a financial burden there.
We've got towns turning from tackle football to flag for fear. I heard people talking this morning about how there's a concern in the NFL that at some point, not now but 10 years from now, 20, football could go the way of boxing, which used to be the most popular sport in the country.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Yeah, and there was in Texas, youth football was a little bit down, and that's the first time that that's happened, and it's very troubling. I will say this. People point to the sports that have gotten less popular, like boxing and horse racing, and both of those sports are brutal sports. But they didn't get less popular because of brutality.
In fact boxing got less popular because ultimate fighting supplanted it, and ultimate fighting is more violent.
YOUNG: Is worse, is worse.
HOBSON: So I think if the NFL can continue to deliver entertainment, it will survive.
YOUNG: Mike Pesca, HERE AND NOW sports analyst, also host of the podcast The Gist at slate.com. Pleasure as always, Mike, thank you.
PESCA: You are welcome.
YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.