Read the latest legal filings against the NFL and the question that comes to mind is, where are the cops when you need them? There is direct evidence that the NFL’s medical personnel knowingly engaged in illegal painkiller abuses, yet federal law enforcement and other government arms have sat conspicuously on their hands and have yet to issue so much as a slap on the wrist to the league. What’s needed and deserved here is a smack with a big stick.
When there are no consequences for egregious misconduct, guess what happens. People continue to act with impunity. That’s basic. The message law enforcement has sent to the NFL is that it enjoys a special and exclusive carve-out from rules that others are forced to obey. NFL medical staffers have admitted in depositions in a federal lawsuit to dispensing painkillers in amounts and ways that violated regulations and medical ethical standards. Yet no one affiliated with the league has faced penalties the rest of us — not to mention players — have to face over drug misuse. Instead, the Drug Enforcement Administration gave the league a gentle lecture. That’s it.
If it were discovered that Apple or American Airlines or Xerox or any other American business had stashed and handled painkillers illegally so it could dose its employees in massive amounts to keep them on the job, and those employees began sickening in large numbers, there would be major investigations with hell to pay at every level of law enforcement and government. But the NFL gets a pass because it’s a sport, a pastime, in which we talk about “players” instead of workers with rights, and the league knows how to pacify lawmakers by intoning platitudes about “improved health and safety.”
The NFL Players Association has filed a grievance asking a neutral civil arbitrator to do what police, medical boards and Congress refuse to do: force the league to obey the law and discipline its doctors and trainers. The grievance comes in the wake of disclosures in a pair of federal lawsuits by former players alleging a range of harm from painkiller practices, in which NFL doctors and trainers admitted in sworn depositions to their conduct.
According to the grievance: Teams feared they would be at a “competitive disadvantage” if they didn’t dose their players improperly with painkillers, and the league sought to “actively conceal such violations from the players and their union, the NFLPA.” In doing so, the league also violated the collective bargaining agreement signed between the league and the players’ association in 2011, according to the union complaint.
One example cited in the grievance: The CBA mandates that the union’s medical director be a voting member of all committees related to health and safety and have access to “all of the same data, records and other information” involving player health issues.
So imagine the union’s surprise to discover that the NFL convened a special committee on prescription drugs and issued “Major Findings and Recommendations” on Sept. 7, 2014. Know how and when the union found out about that? In court documents produced by the lawsuits a few weeks ago.
That’s right. The NFL left the players’ representative doctor off the committee and kept its existence from the union, along with its data, records and conclusions. One of those conclusions, according to the grievance, was that “non-physicians” administered drugs to players at many clubs.” Which is against the law.
“The NFLPA Medical Director was given no access and no information with respect” to this committee or its findings, the union complains. The league “affirmatively and improperly concealed” it from the players’ association, and thus it violated the contract. The shorter term for that is a coverup.
Here’s the point to all of this: Why should the NFL feel compelled to live up to its contract when it doesn’t have to live up to any laws?
For years, the league has flexed its authority when it comes to punishing players for the sake of public perception. It has hit them with disproportionate penalties for having shirttails out. For end zone dances that were deemed excessively celebratory. It has suspended players for marijuana use. It made a federal case of the inflation level of a few footballs.
But when it comes to reining in rogue team doctors and living up to government regulation, it shrugs.
And why not? Who’s going to make it?
No one seems willing to. Based on the admissions contained in the lawsuit depositions, some NFL doctors and trainers probably should face charges and medical board inquiries. Yet drug cops have proved apathetic — if not friendly to the point of collusion. Congress has been equally gentle with the league, despite the fact that opioid abuse is a national health emergency — the state of Florida lost almost 4,000 people to overdose deaths last year.
History shows the NFL owners simply will not govern their own conduct when it comes to protecting player health. We learned that when they ignored for years the well-founded evidence that their players were suffering serious brain injuries. The very same pattern is evident with painkillers: Depositions of league doctors show the league’s medical advisers knew of a prescription drug problem in 2014.
According to the union, the NFL claims the committee is no longer “in existence” and that the players’ association is not entitled to so much as a sheaf of paper from it, because the committee was not about “health and safety.” Really? Seven doctors sat on it, and so did the league’s director of health and safety.
Is anyone in power going to hold the NFL accountable and demand it behave like a decent citizen? Apparently not.
Instead, NFL players have to hope for the luck of the draw and that their grievance is heard by a strong arbitrator. The union is requesting several “orders of compliance.” The arbitrator should grant them.
First, order the league to fire club physicians and medical personnel who admitted misconduct with painkillers. Second, order the league to establish a specific disciplinary schedule of fines, suspensions and dismissals for club employees who fail to comply with painkiller laws and ethical standards. Third, order the league and its medical advisers to furnish every single document or communication relating to painkillers to the union. Fourth, order that all league medical personnel undergo mandatory training on laws relating to medications.
Finally, and most important of all, order the league to answer to somebody on a regular basis. The arbitrator should demand ongoing periodic reports and records from the NFL’s medical advisers, showing painkiller distribution.
It would be the first time someone actually made them, you know, obey the law.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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