It was easy to be skeptical of the new lawsuit filed against the NFL on Tuesday, with more than 500 ex-players accusing the league of putting profits ahead of players’ health by liberally handing out painkillers and other drugs without discussing, or significantly understating, the health-related implications of the drugs’ use.
Shouldn’t the players know that popping painkillers and anti-inflammatories and amphetamines would have adverse effects? Didn’t they beg the team doctors for any sort of medication that would help them stay on the field and keep their jobs? Why are these claims being brought up now, when these episodes happened 20, 30, or 40 years ago?
And then you read about one of the plaintiffs, former 49ers center Jeremy Newberry. A second-round pick in 1998 who played in 120 games over 11 seasons, Newberry said in 2012 that he routinely took a team-administered shot of Toradol, the popular anti-inflammatory drug, and stood in lines 20-30 players deep after games to receive it.
By 2011, three years after his career ended, Newberry said he had Stage 3 renal failure, meaning he has only 30-60 percent use of his kidneys and has increased cardiovascular risk. Midstage kidney failure is common among senior citizens, but not 38-year-olds.
Steven Silverman, the attorney representing all 500-plus players, said last week on ESPN Radio that Toradol is to blame for Newberry’s condition. The NFL hasn’t responded publicly yet, and Rams team physician Matthew Matava, president of the NFL Physicians Society, defended his colleagues’ “outstanding medical care” for the last 14 years.
“When he asked if there was a downside to taking a shot of Toradol every week, the doctor said, ‘You’re going to get some bruising,’ ” Silverman said. “But they never once told him that over-the-top use of Toradol creates kidney damage.”
Newberry couldn’t decide if playing through injuries was worth future kidney failure, because “Jeremy was never given that decision.”
The key to this lawsuit, according to legal experts, is the concept of “informed consent” — that patients have the right to be fully informed of different courses of treatment and their consequences.
“The better claim isn’t, ‘Oh, they made me take it,’ ” said William Thompson, a medical malpractice attorney and partner at the Boston law firm Lubin and Meyer. “The better claim is, ‘They didn’t tell us about the risk of nerve damage and kidney damage and all the things that were laid out.’
“There’s all types of information about the risks, and I suppose you could say the players could’ve done their own independent research. But these guys are ballplayers. They’re not that sophisticated. They might not even know where to look.”
In a 2012 piece by HBO Sports, former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher compared Toradol to a flu shot, a common refrain among current and former NFL players. Urlacher said he had “no idea” when told by a reporter that it could lead to gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney failure, but also that he would still probably take the drugs despite the risk.
Many players agree with him — there’s a lot of money at stake in an NFL career.
A couple of former team physicians I spoke with last week explained that when 15-20 players line up after a practice or game demanding their drugs, the medical staff doesn’t always have the time to go through every side effect with each player. Obviously, the NFL locker room is not a typical doctor’s office, NFL players are not typical patients, and it’s fair to say that the medical culture was more “Wild West” than it is today.
Not all 500-plus plaintiffs are in a situation like Newberry’s. Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter said he knew the risks and consequences of putting substances in his body, and that he views many plaintiffs as attaching themselves to the lawsuit for a quick money grab.
The couple of former NFL team doctors I spoke with noted how players lined up and practically begged them for painkillers and other medication to help them stay on the field.
Former Oilers linebacker Ron Pritchard, one of the plaintiffs, said last week on the “Today” show that he and his teammates routinely asked for “Quaaludes or valium or whatever.”
“I’m asking,” he said, “but they had them there for you. They knew you were going to ask them. Why are they putting it on the shelf for me to take?”
Finding medical records of, say, the 1985 Bears will be tough. David Chao, formerly the Chargers’ team doctor for almost two decades, noted that medical records are only required to be kept for seven years. Medical records weren’t kept electronically like they are now, and it will be tough for the plaintiffs to find a paper trail that the NFL and its doctors willingly withheld medical information from the players. Silverman threatened that he has access to doctors and medical records, but it’s hard to know if he’s serious or just blowing smoke.
Still, the NFL would be smart to squash this one quickly — either by convincing the courts to merge it in with the concussion lawsuit settlement, which is still pending final approval and may fall apart, or by quickly settling out of court. A protracted lawsuit could uncover some ugly truths about the league and its medical practices, even if a lot of it has been cleaned up and regulated in recent years. And the players do have a compelling case.
“You cannot distribute narcotics without expensive documentation,” Silverman said. “You cannot order thousands of narcotics at the start of the season, throw a bunch of players’ names on there that you haven’t examined, put them in bulk in a trainer’s room, and dispense them like Halloween candy. These are all violations of federal law, and it’s the lack of records in these instances that are going to have doctors and trainers squirming throughout the league.”
Tannehill’s contract set the stage for others
The jury is still out on whether Ryan Tannehill is the right man to be the Dolphins’ long-term quarterback. But even if he never plays another game, he’s already left his mark on the NFL.
Tannehill, the Dolphins’ No. 8 overall pick in 2012, was the first to sign a unique contract structure that is becoming common as teams win another small battle at the negotiating table.
Tannehill was the first top-10 pick to agree to have “offset language” put into his contract, in which a team can avoid paying the full balance of a player’s salary if the player is cut and signed by another team. The issue of offset language is relatively small, but one of the few negotiating points left after the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011 spelled out the formula for determining rookie contracts. The Dolphins’ front office has been at the forefront of the effort to have offset language become standard in all player contracts.
In exchange for the offset language, Tannehill got more than half of his base salary turned into bonus money. Tannehill still got the same value of his contract — $12.66 million guaranteed over four years — but he then gets $2.9 million worth of roster bonuses on the fifth day of training camp each year, and rookie minimum salaries from $390,000 to $660,000.
Last year, eight of the top 12 picks agreed to offset language with a similar contract structure, including No. 1 pick Eric Fisher. Only the Jaguars, Lions, Rams, and Raiders did not get offset provisions.
This year, the two highest picks to sign — No. 5 Khalil Mack (Oakland) and No. 6 Jake Matthews (Atlanta) — have the same structure. More are sure to come.
Trading down valuable move for the Patriots
The Patriots’ decision to trade out of the back end of the third round and into the top of the fourth round had financial implications, as well. While first- and second-rounders have their contracts spelled out by the CBA, third-rounders have a little wiggle room on base salary, split salaries, credited seasons, and so forth. A good agent can get his client an extra $10,000 in salary in future years, and it’s not uncommon for players such as Mike Glennon or Louis Nix to get more money than players drafted higher.
However, players drafted in Rounds 4-7 receive only minimum salaries, with nothing guaranteed other than a five- or six-figure signing bonus. In dropping just 12 spots from the third to the fourth round, the Patriots didn’t have to bother negotiating with the player they drafted (center Bryan Stork). And they saved about $50,000 in signing bonus money by taking him at 105 instead of 93.
Rural South has more than its share of talent
Texas, Florida, and California are widely considered the top producers of football talent, but would you believe the biggest hotbeds are deep in the rural South?
According to a survey of the last three drafts by Scout.com’s Jamie Newberg, the cities or areas with the most NFL talent, on a per capita basis, are Mobile, Ala., and South Georgia. Mobile, with a population of 726,000, has cranked out several NFL players in recent years, including Julio Jones, Mark Barron, D.J. Fluker, Captain Munnerlyn, Rodney Hudson, A.J. McCarron, and failed quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and Pat White. Rounding out the top five are three South Florida counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach — followed by New Orleans and Birmingham.
Over the last three years, the areas with the most draft picks are: South Florida (57), Los Angeles (42), Dallas/Fort Worth (27), Houston (26), and Atlanta (22).
Access and success not mutually exclusive
Big fan of these tweets from Broncos PR boss Patrick Smyth last week:
“Broncos rookie camp begins today. Media will be present all three days for viewing & interviews.”
“Media is a big part of the NFL, and the more success a team has, the more its players have to be able to deal with the media attention.”
“John Elway & John Fox ‘get it’ when it comes to empowering players to deal w/media in a positive way.”
“Team allotted 1+hr for PR to conduct extensive media & social media review w/rookies. Value for rookies to see importance from start.”
Couldn’t agree more. Let the Broncos be the shining example that a team can be accessible and cooperative with the media and still be successful on the field.
Mole in the war room?
Rams coach Jeff Fisher hasn’t been a member of the Titans organization since 2010. But did he have a spy inside their war room?
NFL.com reporter Michael Silver was embedded with the Rams during the draft, and he had an interesting anecdote about how the Rams traded up to the 41st spot to draft cornerback LaMarcus Joyner. Silver wrote that the Rams were going to take Joyner with the 44th pick, but “became convinced that the Titans were preparing to snag Joyner two picks earlier.” The Rams then traded with the Bills to get the 41st pick and draft Joyner. The Titans then traded out of the 42d pick.
“I don’t know how we did it,” Fisher told Silver. “I just had a feeling.”
A feeling, eh?
Good luck defending the Buccaneers in the red zone. Here are the heights of the top receivers for Mike Glennon (or perhaps Josh McCown): WR Vincent Jackson (6-5), WR Mike Evans (6-5), WR Tommy Streeter (6-5), TE Luke Stocker (6-6), TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins (6-5) . . . Good for the Dolphins for reinstating Don Jones after a fine, one-week suspension, and sensitivity training for tweeting “OMG” and “horrible” after Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend on live TV during the draft. Now the Dolphins should quietly return his fine money, too. We understand that the Dolphins are sensitive to everything following the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin fiasco, but Jones is a seventh-round pick making minimum salaries, and his tweets were hardly worthy of a five-figure fine . . . Interesting to see the NFL getting major national attention last week for the painkiller lawsuit, yet almost no attention for Indiana Pacers forward Paul George admitting that he was knocked out cold in the Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat, yet later returned to the game after he was cleared by team doctors. Can you imagine the national outrage if an NFL team and player did that? . . . New NFL Players Association president Eric Winston made his first big headline in his new role last week by telling Pro Football Talk that “there should be a higher standard for owners” regarding the Colts’ Jim Irsay and his recent arrest on one count of driving while intoxicated and four drug charges. Many in the media pointed out last week that commissioner Roger Goodell wasn’t being hypocritical for waiting to dole out any punishment before Irsay had been officially charged, which he was of two misdemeanors on Friday. But it was still a bad look for the NFL to allow Irsay to participate in the Colts’ draft two weeks ago and in the NFL spring meetings last week, where he helped present his city’s bid for the Super Bowl. Goodell doesn’t have to punish Irsay yet, but he should have advised him to stay away from the meetings . . . Several groups with western New York ties are lining up to purchase the Bills from the estate of the late Ralph Wilson, and the Bills announced on their website that Morgan Stanley will work as financial adviser and Proskauer Rose as legal adviser. Team president Russ Brandon had an interesting quote about who will really call the shots in determining the team’s new owner. “The bank will go through all the interested parties and vet them,” he said. The new ownership group will still have to be approved by a vote of NFL owners, but it sounds like the bank will make sure the Bills choose a qualified person or group . . . The Poor Choice of Words award of the week goes to Ray Rice of the Ravens, who spoke publicly on Friday for the first time since his arrest for allegedly hitting his girlfriend (now wife) in February. Video surveillance of the incident appears to show Rice dragging her unconscious body out of a hotel elevator: “I won’t call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down. It’s not getting up.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.