TIME NFL

Painkiller Suit a Serious New Headache for NFL

Roy Green catches pass in endzone
Wide receiver Roy Green #81 of the Phoenix Cardinals catches a pass in the endzone during an NFL game against the San Diego Chargers on Oc. 1, 1989 at Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix. Stephen Dunn—Getty Images

In 1984, while naming his first All-Madden team, John Madden called Roy Green, wide receiver for the St. Louis — now Arizona — Cardinals the best player in football. Better than Montana, better than Marino. But three or four years after he retired in 1992, Green says he started feeling a strange fatigue. From there, things just progressively worse.

“Bending over to tie my shoe felt like running a mile,” Green tells TIME. “You know what, just imagine, being one of the most highly-trained athletes, the best in the world at what I did,” says Green. “You go from that, to not being able to jog, barely able to walk. Just imagine what my psyche was like.” Green got depressed, and his physical problems persisted. Since his retirement, Green has suffered three heart attacks. He has high blood pressure, and his kidneys failed: in November 2012, Green had a kidney transplant. “It was just a miserable existence, really.”

Now, Green wants the NFL to pay for his medical problems. Green is one of eight named plaintiffs, which include two stars from the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl team — quarterback Jim McMahon and defensive end Richard Dent — in the latest class-action legal move against the NFL. More than 500 ex-players are suing the league over its alleged reckless distribution of narcotic painkillers, which help keep players on the field but carry serious long-term health risks. The complaint says that Green, for example, received “hundreds, if not thousands, of injections from doctors and pills from trainers, including but not limited to NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), Indocin, Naprosyn, Percocet, Vicodin and Butisol. He was also given trauma IVs. No one from the NFL ever talked to him about the side effects of the medications he was being given or cocktailing.”

Before the transplant, Green says he came across a 1984 team medical report that showed he had high creatine levels, a condition that warns of possible kidney failure. Green’s lawyers say they have the report. Yet, Green says, doctors and trainers continued giving him drugs where kidney damage was a known side-effect. (The NFL says its lawyers are reviewing the complaint; a spokesman for the Cardinals, the team for which Green played the bulk of his career, did not return a request for comment).

“I was angry,” Green says about his reaction to seeing the report. “Like, ‘wow, I could have avoided all those miserable years.'” Green says that if he were warned of the potential side-effects of the drugs, he would not have taken them. “I would have had a very short career,” Green says. “You just trusted they had your best interests at heart.”

Coming on the heels of the concussion litigation that the NFL and ex-players settled for $765 million in August — though the judge hasn’t officially signed off on the amount, saying it might be too low to support all the suffering players who need the financial assistance — it might be tempting to dismiss this action as a frivolous follow-up. Hit the NFL while it’s vulnerable: a settlement worked for concussions, let’s give painkillers a go.

Don’t. “This is a serious suit,” says Paul Haagen, co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University. “If the facts bear out that doctors were not warning players about the health risks, weren’t putting them on notice, for a long period of time, there’s clearly potential for liability.”

Though victory is very far from a sure thing. The NFL is sure to argue that because it operates under a collective bargaining agreement with its players, these grievances are subject to arbitration, not the federal court system. Also, the NFL will question why the players’ union didn’t object to any of this medical treatment.

As with the concussion litigation, the biggest challenge will probably be causation. In Roy Green’s case, for example, how can you prove without question that painkiller injections caused his kidney damage? “No doubt the players have suffered real damages from playing football,” says Warren Zola, sports law expert at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “But blaming the NFL in a court of law is a high hurdle.”

Legal merits of the suit aside, says Haagen, “the entire issue of painkillers is the next part of the exploration of violence in the game.” Getting players “healthy” enough to return to the field will always come with potential consequences. “Normally, doctors control a patient’s medication to help the body heal,” Haagen says. “Here, they are controlling medication to do more damage to the body.”

The suit itself acknowledges that “several NFL teams and physicians have recently taken steps to tighten the control and distribution of medications in the locker room.” One recently retired NFL vet, former Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, says he always got “excellent care” and was given warnings about the side-effects of painkillers. Russ Hochstein, meanwhile, played in the NFL from 2001-2012, most notably as an offensive lineman for the New England Patriots. “The difference in the education about painkillers and their side effects definitely changed, for the better, since the time I entered the NFL,” Hochstein says.

Green hopes the suit will permanently change the NFL’s painkiller culture. “It’s all about the opportunity to say, ‘no, I don’t want to do that.'” Since his kidney transplant about a year-and-a-half ago, Green said his health is improving. “But I’m never going to get all those bad years back,” Green says. “That’s for sure.”

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