Disturbed about allegations that teams recklessly treated players with opioids and other painkillers, the NFL players’ union has charged the league and its clubs with conspiring to violate terms of the collective bargaining agreement governing health and safety issues.
A non-injury grievance filed by the NFL Players Association points to a federal lawsuit against the 32 teams that includes charges that the NFL and its clubs illegally stored, transported and dispensed medication and that players were plied with pain medication to stay on the playing field each year. The lawsuit “raises serious issues about whether the NFL knew about potential and ongoing criminal violations regarding prescription drugs, as well as troubling questions about the legality and medical ethics of the dispensing of painkillers by NFL medical personnel to players,” the union said.
The NFL’s handling and dispensing of pain medication has been the subject of a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation and two federal lawsuits by former players.
The NFL said in a letter to Congress last month that its team doctors were relying on guidance from the DEA over the proper handling of controlled substances. It said teams have improved record-keeping and procedures for advising players on the “uses, benefits, and risks” of medications.
In the grievance, the union charges that allegations contained in a federal lawsuit filed by Etopia Evans, the widow of former Baltimore Ravens player Charles Evans, “demonstrates that the NFL and its Clubs, including medical and legal personnel, have conspired to continue to violate the CBA and actively conceal such violations from the Players and their union, the NFLPA.”
The grievance cites two previous letters sent to the NFL in April, seeking an explanation, but says “the NFL did not provide any information or substantive response to those communications.”
An NFL spokesman said Tuesday that “there is not a single new allegation or any other factual support in the union’s” complaint. The NFLPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Non-injury grievances are relatively uncommon and not usually publicized. They’re typically assigned to neutral arbiter, who presides over the matter at a hearing.
The 11-page grievance was signed by players’ union attorney Tom DePaso and sent to the league April 28. Under terms of the CBA between players and NFL owners, such grievances are supposed to remain confidential. But the NFL disclosed the grievance in a filing Monday in a separate federal lawsuit filed by former Chicago Bears player Richard Dent. That case was dismissed in 2014 after U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the allegations were preempted by the CBA. The case is currently under review by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Alsup is also presiding over the Evans case, which names the 32 NFL teams as defendants and not the league. Alsup allowed that case to enter the discovery phase and is currently considering a dismissal motion filed by the NFL teams.
In its filing Monday on the Dent case, the NFL said the union grievance is evidence that the allegations related to prescription medications are preempted by the CBA and there are more appropriate legal channels to adjudicate the matter. While the Dent lawsuit was filed by retired players, the union solely represents active NFL players and is not part of the litigation. The grievance’s allegations “underscore [that the] appellants’ negligence and fraud claims are preempted,” Paul Clement, an NFL attorney, wrote to the court.
In its grievance letter, the union expressed concern that the NFL failed to punish any teams or personnel related to the administering of prescription drugs. Comparing the drug-related allegations with the “Deflategate” controversy, in which the league “punished the New England Patriots to the tune of forfeiting first- and fourth-round draft picks plus a $1 million fine for alleged conduct relating to taking a tiny amount of air out of footballs,” the union wrote, “it is incomprehensible that the League has taken no action whatsoever against Clubs.”
The union charged the NFL and its teams with “egregiously” disregarding CBA requirements governing “the proper, legal, medically ethical prescription, dispensing, and transportation of prescription painkillers.” The complaint added that team medical personnel “considered the ‘competitive disadvantage’ their teams would face if they did not improperly dispense prescription painkillers to players.”
The union requested several areas of relief, including an order that would require teams to regularly disclose data on “use and dispensing of painkillers,” biannual training for team medical personnel on compliance and ethical issues, and an order requiring teams to terminate employees who have violated the CBA’s health and safety provisions.
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