There are two more video clips from the ensuing days that clearly show Vitt alone in the office, unlocking a cabinet and helping himself to a handful of prescription painkillers. The locks were quickly changed and one final video captured Vitt’s failed attempt to get inside the cabinet.
Not long after, Santini called Loomis to discuss the situation and recorded the conversation. During the exchange, the two discussed to what authority they must answer.
“Mickey, I am just telling you that is not how it works,” Santini says. “The law is there.”
“We are not talking about the law,” Loomis responds. “We are talking about the league.”
The videos and recorded conversations, much of them reviewed by The Post, have become evidence in a DEA investigation that is now in the hands of the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Orleans. The case is still open and, according to people with knowledge of the situation, federal authorities are weighing a hefty fine against the Saints for violating laws governing the proper storage, control and dispensing of prescription drugs.
Only a properly licensed pharmacy may store prescription drugs, and they must be properly secured and counted pill by pill in federally reported logs, according to DEA regulations. Only physicians can administer them. It is illegal for anyone else, including athletic trainers or coaches, to control or hand them out. In an effort to comply, the NFL subjects teams to annual pill audits, requiring them to report every dosage. But the system is far from fail-safe. In the Saints’ training room, as the video showed, access to the drug cabinet was relatively unchecked and those with access could scoop out pills by the handful.
After Vitt was caught on camera, the team’s trainers initially seemed to underappreciate the severity of what had happened and explained to Santini in recorded conversations that they intended to falsify the counts in their drug logs. “Our numbers will be right. . . . We are going back and adjusting, you know, these discrepancies and crediting” Vitt, Scottie Patton, the head trainer, told Santini.
Most teams now use a third-party company, registered with the DEA, that delivers prescription medication to team facilities and NFL stadiums, and maintain detailed drug logs. Using computer software, the substances can then be tracked by both the NFL and the third-party company. About half the NFL teams use a firm named SportPharm, and a spokeswoman for the company said several teams are mandated by the league to use its services to keep their operations in proper order.
In 2009, the Saints used a system that was a bit simpler. A Vicodin prescription by Saints team physician John Amoss was filled at a local Walgreens, according to court records, listing the patient as “New Orleans Saints.”
The Saints declined to comment for this article or make Loomis, Vitt, Patton or Amoss available for comment. In a June 2009 recorded conversation, Loomis said Vitt was seeing a counselor and was in the care of a doctor. “We got him on the path of correction,” he said. Loomis also made clear that he didn’t think Vitt was abusing painkillers: “I am telling you what the doctor said: Joe is not a drug addict with a drug problem.”
Despite earlier talk of falsifying records, in the recorded conversation, Santini appears to convince Loomis that the team would be violating the law and they’d all be subject to prosecution if they tried to fix the books or cover up the issue. “I’m not for breaking the law, I am for reporting this,” the general manager said. “I’m also trying to do a solution that doesn’t get Joe in a lot of hot water because I think we are on a path. This issue [is] corrected.”
Vitt, who served as the Saints interim head coach last season, agreed in U.S. District Court to enter what’s known as a pre-trial diversion program, a form of probation for first-time offenders in which he fulfilled certain obligations for 12 months, ranging from paying a fine to undergoing education, according to two people familiar with the agreement.
Santini resigned from the Saints organization on Aug. 16, 2009, and filed a lawsuit against the team eight months later. The case was moved to arbitration and the sides privately settled, but the allegations had already caught the eyes of federal authorities. Investigators with the DEA unearthed a number of violations with the Saints’ operation, according to people familiar with the situation, and worked with the team to bring the organization into better compliance.
Search for pain relief
About five years ago, Casolaro, the Redskins’ physician, said he learned of an Atlanta doctor who flew to the Washington area midweek to meet with and provide treatment for a Redskins player. Casolaro passed the information to league security, which informed the man he wasn’t licensed to practice medicine in Virginia.
“He never came back,” Casolaro said.
The incident highlights an age-old dilemma NFL medical personnel face. Team physicians who would like to rely less on pain medications wrestle with the alternative: The pain exists, therefore so does the need for painkillers. As Casolaro said, “If we don’t give them a drug that they’re allowed to have, will they go get it from outside? And what will they get?”
It’s a legitimate concern: The Washington University School of Medicine study found that of players who misuse pain medication, 63 percent said they obtained their pills from a source other than a doctor.
The demand isn’t spurred solely by a chemical addiction. Toradol isn’t a narcotic, but the 2002 study of the drug’s usage in the NFL found several teams reporting a “psychological addiction” to game-day injections.
“Because you rely so much on the instant pain relief,” said Ibrahim, the D.C. United doctor, “people can become habituated to it.”
Wilson Compton, a division director at the National Institute of Drug Abuse and a former clinician in the league’s substance abuse program, says the reality is that NFL players simply deal with more pain than the average citizen. The Washington University School of Medicine study found that only 13 percent of players reported their overall health to be excellent, while 81 percent reported feeling “moderate to severe” pain daily.
Compton was struck “by the quantity and extent of painful conditions the players who retired are experiencing. . . . This tells us that their bodies suffer extraordinary stress and disruption.”
Further study is needed of what doctors and athletes are really using to treat pain, Compton says — how much are they using, and why? For instance, Compton asks, are players also seeking medication from their personal physicians?
“It’s helpful to have research,” he said, “so there really is some medical and health information about the long term, and it isn’t just considering, ‘What can I do to get through the next seven days?’ ”
Julie Tate and Capital Insight Director Jon Cohen and pollsters Peyton M. Craighill, Scott Clement and Kimberly Hines contributed to this report.