When the throbbing in his surgically repaired right knee made it hard to walk, much less play, Chester Pitts, a former offensive lineman for the Houston Texans, found a way to prolong his career one more year: a cocktail of Toradol injections on Sundays, with anti-inflammatories and narcotic painkillers the other days of the week.
“If I was really hurting, I would take a mix,” he said. “I could do Tylenol with the Indocin or the Vicodin. Couldn’t do Vicodin with certain things. You could take one NSAID and one acetaminophen, whatever they said.”
When former Redskin Mark Schlereth, a veteran of 12 seasons and 29 surgeries, underwent a kidney-stone operation on a Sunday night and suited up for a game less than 24 hours later, he drew the strength to do so from a needle and pill bottle.
“I would strap a dog turd to it if I thought that would make me feel better,” he said. “Bottom line is, I’d do whatever I have to do. Have I had Toradol shots? Yes. Have I abused anti-inflammatories? Yes. Have I used painkillers? Yes. Have I got shot up with painkillers and Xylocaine and different things to numb areas so I can play? Yes. I’ve done it all.”
Jarring hits and injuries are an inherent part of the National Football League, and so too is the game’s complex — and potentially dangerous — system of managing pain. It’s an issue the league has grappled with for many years: a culture of prescription drug use and misuse that stretches from the locker room into retirement, and even on to coaching staffs, with uneven oversight and a lack of uniform guidelines. Numerous studies suggest the drugs that help many athletes take the field each Sunday can carry dangerous side effects, lead to lifelong addictions, expose them to further injury and compromise a delicate system that’s ripe for abuse.
Court records and interviews reveal that until recently some NFL teams either flouted or were ignorant of Drug Enforcement Agency laws governing the dispensing of painkillers. Moreover, The Washington Post surveyed more than 500 former players about their experiences with drugs in the NFL. One in four said he felt pressure from team doctors to take medication he was uncomfortable with.
The NFL’s most recently reported rate of opioid use — 7 percent — was three times higher than that of the general population, but the league’s defenders say that the NFL’s problem with prescription abuse is hardly unique. According to federal statistics, more than 2 million Americans are addicted to painkillers. Deaths caused by the overdose of prescription drugs exceeded motor vehicle deaths in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and are responsible for more deaths than illegal street drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and amphetamines.