Lining Up for the T-Train – Are NFL Teams in Violation of Federal Drug Law?

Lawsuit by former NFL players alleges that the overuse of prescription drugs in the NFL is a violation of the Controlled Substances Act.

It’s an autumn Sunday in America and stadiums across the nation are preparing to open their gates for tens of thousands of uniform-clad, face-painted fanatics.  Millions of people at home around the country, and a staggering number overseas, tune their TVs to pre-game panel discussions hosted by former professional players and coaches.  Fans of the National Football League have spent all week looking forward to Sunday, fueled by their insane love for the players who suit up and do battle.  The players, after another week of grueling practices filled with lingering injuries and high expectations, line up in the locker room by the dozen and, one by one, are injected with drugs to numb the pain, handed pills to do the same, and are then sent out on the field to score more points than the other team.

The football teams Americans love are likely violating federal drug enforcement laws through their unlawful storage, tracking, transportation, and distribution of tens of thousands of doses of medications and controlled substances, at least per a federal lawsuit filed by former NFL players.  The Washington Post discovered and reviewed sealed court documents within the federal lawsuit and has since provided the public with information regarding how NFL teams and their doctors medicate their players to keep them suited up week in and week out.

“Per the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint, all 32 NFL teams have repeatedly been in violation of the CSA since the 1970s.”

Under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), strict guidelines are set forth concerning the management of controlled substances.  The CSA mandates how registered providers, like team doctors, must store, track, log, transport, and dispense prescription drugs and controlled substances.  Per the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint, all 32 NFL teams have repeatedly been in violation of the CSA since the 1970s.  The plaintiffs allege that due to the Defendants’ actions, they have suffered from internal organ damage as well and skeletal and muscular injuries.  Although originally filed in the state of Maryland, the lawsuit was transferred to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.  Presiding over the case is U.S. District Judge William Alsup.  Trial is set for October 2017.

Actions brought against the NFL rarely reach trial.  Due to the NFL’s stringent collective bargaining agreement, most disputes are settled through less public means such as arbitration.  The plaintiffs worked their way around the league’s CBA by focusing on specific illegal actions committed by teams and their personnel rather than simple negligence on the part of the league.  According to Judge Alsup, the CBA will not preempt allegations “grounded in illegal conduct.”

“The plaintiffs’ lawyers claim NFL teams have been repeatedly warned about this practice but have disregarded the warnings and continued to break the law.”

The lawyers for the players suing the league assert that every single team doctor that they deposed testified that they were or are in violation of federal drug laws while serving as a doctor for an NFL team.  Further, these depositions exposed that team trainers have been controlling and handing out prescription medication and controlled substances, a violation of the CSA.  Per the CSA, “every person who manufactures or distributes any controlled substance,” or “who proposes to engage” in the same activity must obtain from the Attorney General a registration to do so.  The plaintiffs’ lawyers claim NFL teams have been repeatedly warned about this practice but have disregarded the warnings and continued to break the law.

The complaint alleges, among other things, that team doctors and medical personnel withheld information from players regarding the seriousness and extent of their injuries, doling out prescription painkillers and sleep aids to mask the bruising effects that are inherent within the game of football.  Additionally, the plaintiffs claim that team doctors and medical personnel have taken out prescriptions in their names without their knowledge.  The prescriptions taken out in their names include controlled substances such as Percodan, Percocet, Vicodin, anti-inflammatories like Toradol, and sleep aids like Ambien.  The complaint further alleges that when players would ask about the side effects of the drugs they were being handed or injected with, team doctors and medical personnel would downplay the effects tremendously.  Team doctors allegedly claimed that “they are good for you,” or “don’t worry about them.”  When players would ask about the injections of Toradol, the answer would be, “maybe a little bruising.”

“. . . in the year 2012 alone, ‘5,077 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and 2,213 doses of controlled medications’ were dispensed to players.”

To add some perspective on just how much medication was being given to players, the Washington Post uncovered some rather egregious numbers.  The Washington Post reviewed sealed portions of the complaint and found that the plaintiffs are asserting that in the year 2012 alone, “5,077 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and 2,213 doses of controlled medications” were dispensed to players.  The Washington Post points out that this could average out to about six or seven doses per player per week throughout the NFL season, but it is unlikely that these drugs are being dispensed to every player.  Further, The Washington Post doubts, as well as the complaint alleges, that team medication logs accurately reflect what is being given to players.

Even more concerning is the allegation that several NFL coaches and assistants warned players that they would be cut from the team if they did not take painkillers to stay on the field.  While gross and reckless, there is some logic behind this sort of behavior.  It is the star playmakers in the NFL that truly drive up sales for their teams.  Fans buy tickets to games and purchase jerseys because of the names on the roster.  When star players are injured and cannot play, these NFL teams likely suffer both in sales and attendance.  Keeping players on the field, regardless of how injured they are, keeps the money coming in.

If these allegations were not enough, the plaintiffs also claim that team doctors throughout the league have been engaging in discussions through email about how to skirt the regulations and feign compliance when inspections occur.  Emails between the trainers and team doctors of the many NFL teams found within sealed portions of the complaint have been highlighted by Laura Wagner of Deadspin.

“The complaint states that players have been lining up for what has been called the ‘T-Train.’”

One email from a Cincinnati Bengals trainer states, “Can you have your office fax a copy of your DEA certificate to me?  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!”  Another statement found within the complaint described an NFL-funded task force created to study the drug Toradol.  The complaint alleges that the task force was simply put together to pay “lip service” to the problems presented by Toradol.  The complaint states that players have been lining up for what has been called the “T-Train.”  They are lining up to receive Toradol injections before games, for at least fifteen years within the Pittsburg Steelers franchise.  It is likely that the Steelers are not the only ones doing this.

Toradol, an anti-inflammatory, is most often used to remedy post-operation pain.  NFL teams are allegedly injecting players with it before games to prevent them from feeling as much pain on the field.  Vicodin, a highly addictive controlled substance, is being given out to players in the same manner.  Of course, the NFL is denying these practices still occur.  The potential long term effects of Toradol injections are still not known, but the allegations by the players paint a grim picture.  Vicodin and similar opiate painkillers are well known for their propensity to spark addiction, but football is a violent sport and players are going to get hurt.  With so much money on the line, the health of players will likely always be put to the wayside in favor of profit.  Maybe this lawsuit can change that.

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About Blake Drewry (14 Articles)
Blake Drewry is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Courtland, Virginia, Blake received his undergraduate degree from East Carolina University where he majored in Political Science and Philosophy. His legal interests include local government law, land use and zoning law, and sports law. The summer after his 1L year, he worked for the General Counsel at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. This past summer he worked at the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.