Federal judge ruled retired players had largely failed to demonstrate their current medical problems stemmed from drugs administered by teams during their playing days. (Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images)

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed the bulk of the charges levied by retired players against NFL teams alleging years of improper handling and administration of pain medication. The judge said the players had largely failed to demonstrate that their medical problems in retirement are tied to the drugs they received during their playing careers or the way their teams administered pain medication to them.

Despite a scathing rebuke directed at the retired players and attorneys suing the league’s 32 teams, U.S. District Judge William Alsup permitted claims against three teams to continue, effectively allowing a significantly pruned lawsuit to move forward.

Alsup’s order didn’t address accusations that teams violated federal laws that govern the handling and transport of painkillers and other controlled substances. It instead focused on whether the ex-players had satisfactorily explained the health damages they suffered, what caused them and whether their claims are barred by statute of limitations.

The judge’s ruling on the NFL teams’ motion to dismiss the case was a significant setback for 14 ex-players who were named as plaintiffs in the case and another 1,800 former players who potentially would be included in a class-action suit if they get certified.

The case has called attention to the NFL’s use of painkillers and other drugs, attracting attention of lawmakers on Capitol Hill and leading to a grievance filed against the league by the NFL Players Association. The Drug Enforcement Administration has conducted its own investigation into the league’s handling of prescription narcotics.

The NFL said in a letter to Congress this spring that its clubs followed DEA guidance on handling controlled substances, and a DEA spokesman said the league has taken steps to address issues raised by the agency regarding its drug practices.

In his ruling, Alsup said he felt the ex-players were given ample opportunity in two amended complaints to make their case. Instead, the judge said, the ex-players were “openly flouting” the parameters the judge laid out for them. He scolded them for repeating conspiracy claims he’d already tossed out and suggested they did so intentionally.

“Perhaps the bloat of inapposite allegations is the product of some advocacy-based agenda rather than any attempt to comply with pleading requirements,” the judge said.

The former players alleged that teams recklessly treated players with medications to keep them on the playing field and charged the league with violating federal laws in the way prescription drugs were handled, transported, stored and administered.

While Alsup ruled that nine players had sufficiently pleaded claims of intentional misrepresentation against 14 teams, he ruled that 11 of those claims are barred from moving forward because the alleged wrongdoing was more than three years old.

At an April 27 hearing, the two sides argued over when the clock started ticking for players to file a claim: at the date of alleged wrongdoing or at the time when the former players became aware of the harm. The players contended that they didn’t know until recently that teams might have improperly treated them with medication and that mistreatment has impacted their present-day health.

Alsup allowed three claims by ex-players to continue: Reggie Walker’s claim against the Chargers that involved a 2014 injury and Alphonso Carreker’s claims against the Packers and the Broncos, “which are based on continuous excessive use of medication instead of musculoskeletal injuries sustained in the NFL and also may have accrued after May 2012,” according to the judge’s order.

A spokesman for the NFL declined to comment Tuesday. The ex-players could still appeal the judge’s ruling. They also face a June 1 deadline in the case to file for class certification.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys, who also declined to comment, have a similar lawsuit that is under review by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That case, which features Hall of Famer Richard Dent as lead plaintiff, was filed against the entire league, and when Alsup ruled it was preempted by the collective bargaining agreement and dismissed it in 2014, the attorneys filed a second lawsuit the following year against the 32 individual teams.

At the hearing last month, Phillip Closius, an attorney for the former players, cited one of the plaintiffs, Chris Goode, who had a seven-pound tumor removed from his kidney in 2005.

Alsup noted that “with all these players, you’re going to have some people with a tumor anyway. So I don’t understand how you can just arbitrarily blame the drugs.”

“Your honor, these are tumors that are appearing in 30- and 40-year-olds,” Closius said. “These are highly unusual cases. These are not showing up in 60-year-olds.”

In his ruling Tuesday, Alsup said the attorneys failed to establish concrete causation and were therefor misleading in their response and “took aim with birdshot at an entire universe of speculative medical effects.”

“The foregoing exchange suggests that plaintiffs think they can plead the causation element of their concealment claim simply by pointing to some recent internal organ-related problem — with no allegation whatsoever concerning etiology (even after extensive discovery and consultation with ‘a lot of experts’) — and baldly asserting their belief that it directly resulted from their use of medication in the NFL,” the judge wrote. “Not so.”