More than 200 former players allege the NFL’s 32 teams conspired to keep them playing through injuries by pressuring them to take painkillers illegally administered by team physicians without proper prescriptions and with minimal, if any, explanation of risks, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Maryland.
This new case comes five months after a federal judge in California dismissed a similar case filed by former players represented by the same Baltimore-based attorney, Steven Silverman.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Thursday the league had not yet reviewed this new case, but noted last year’s case ended with a ruling in which a federal judge not only concluded federal labor law preempted players’ claims, but also found the NFL had dealt with player health concerns adequately.
“This is not a situation in which the NFL has stood by and done nothing,” Judge William Alsup wrote in that judgment. “The union and the league have bargained extensively over the subject of player medical care for decades.”
In a telephone interview Thursday, Silverman said while there are similarities between the cases — both allege ailing players pressured to take unsafe amounts of addictive drugs with corrosive side effects — there are “significant” differences.
“This is a new case with new plaintiffs and new defendants, new counts, with some overlapping factual allegations — but certainly not identical,” Silverman said. “This complaint involves allegations of intentional activity by the teams, not negligence.”
This new suit does not name the league as a defendant, instead accusing the NFL’s 32 franchises of conspiring to create a “return to play culture” that “permeates professional football,” and has since the 1960s.
In support of the allegation of conspiracy, the complaint asserts a “ubiquity” of “illegal conduct” among the teams.
“Players from every decade since the 1960s describe the same thing,” the complaint states. “Club doctors and trainers providing injections or pills, often not telling the players what they were receiving, misstating the effects of the medications (if they addressed the effects at all) … These doctors and trainers dispensed the medications to their football patients in an amount and manner they would never do with their non-football patients.”
Silverman said this case represents “the journeymen of the game.” Former stars Jim McMahon and Richard Dent, who led the plaintiffs named in last year’s case, are not named in this new complaint. Instead, this case is filed by itinerant players such as Eric King, who played cornerback for four teams, including the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, from 2005 to 2010, and Robert Massey, who played defensive back for five teams, including the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions, from 1989 to 1997. (The complaint includes one former star in Mel Renfro, a Hall of Fame defensive back who played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 to 1977.)
One non-football player is a plaintiff: Etopia Evans, the widow of former Baltimore Ravens fullback Chuck Evans, who developed an addiction to painkillers as a result of his football career, the complaint alleges, and died alone in a Georgia jail cell in 2008 at the age of 41 of heart failure.
Chuck Evans had been arrested for failure to pay child support, according to the complaint.
“He had spent his money on painkillers instead,” it states.
The lawsuit offers several anecdotes of players coerced into taking drugs, then suffering prolonged side effects in retirement. In some anecdotes, former NFL head coaches and team employees are blamed for either pressuring injured players to recklessly play through pain, or looked the other way while others applied pressure.
Among those named are former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, former Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes, former Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice and former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren. Only Shula was able to be reached Thursday evening, and he declined to comment.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.