The late New England Patriots’ star Aaron Hernandez spoke candidly behind bars with ex-teammates about football’s reliance on heavy-duty painkillers, a contentious issue that has spawned lawsuits by retired players and crackdowns by federal law enforcement.
In jail phone calls obtained by the Globe, Hernandez talked to two former teammates about playing hurt and the regimen of painkillers NFL players take to stay on the football field. The players discussed popping pills like Vicodin and Percocet, both addictive opioids,and lobbying for injections of Toradol, a drug so powerful it is usually administered after surgery.
One NFL player, Mike Pouncey, complained to Hernandez that “they don’t even want to give me my Toradol shots anymore.” In another call, former Patriot Brandon Spikes recalled “how they used to pass [painkillers] out on planes” — a scene also described in one lawsuit filed by retired players.
Hernandez — who died by suicide at age 27 last year while serving a life sentence for murder — had a history of substance abuse in his off-field life, particularly smoking pot.
In the jail calls, he and his teammates also extolled the benefits of marijuana, which is now legal in Massachusetts and elsewhere but remains prohibited in the NFL for both recreational and medicinal use as a pain reliever. In one call, Hernandez noted that drinking alcohol dehydrates professional athletes and can cause cramps, but if “you smoke a blunt before you play, it ain’t nothing.”
The recorded jail calls provide an unfiltered glimpse behind the scenes of professional football, offering a rare opportunity to hear players talk openly about managing their pain and the physical grind of the game. The NFL’s relationship with painkillers has come under increased scrutiny this year after a federal appeals court reinstated a class-action lawsuit by retired players accusing the league of illegally administering medicine to mask injuries.
An NFL spokesman said in an e-mail that teams and “their medical staffs put the health and safety of players first” and that “any claim or suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.” The NFL is fighting the lawsuits. Medical care is directed by team physicians and not by the NFL, the spokesman said.
The Patriots did not respond to specific questions from the Globe, but issued a one-sentence statement that said the team has “always been in compliance with federal and state laws, as well as National Football League policies, protocols and best practices with the respect to the administration of medication.”
Hernandez’s former teammates — Pouncey and Spikes — did not respond to the Globe’s requests for comment.
Correctional facilities typically record inmates’ phone calls, and in Hernandez’s case there was a warning to anyone he called that the conversation would be taped. The Globe obtained recordings of his jail calls as part of a public records request for the series Gladiator: Aaron Hernandez & Football, Inc., which includes a podcast produced in conjunction with Wondery. The sixth and final podcast episode was released today.
The investigative series and podcast explored whether big-time football, among other things, bore any culpability for Hernandez’s path from a football phenom to a convicted murderer. After Hernandez died, doctors discovered that he had an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy . The degenerative brain disease known as CTE had been linked to repeated head trauma, including the combat of football.
Hernandez suffered two documented concussions on the football field and played through scores of other injuries. As early as high school, he became a chronic marijuana smoker and later told his attorney that he got high before games. He played for three seasons for the Patriots from 2010 to 2012.
Globe reporters listened to some 300 jail calls that Hernandez made from the Suffolk County jail in 2014 while he was awaiting trial for three murders.
Some details about prescription drug use Hernandez and his former teammates discussed in the phone calls mirror what has been alleged in lawsuits against the NFL and elsewhere. The class-action painkiller lawsuit brought by retired players, for example, described NFL team trainers walking down the aisle of team planes handing out painkillers.
Warning: This audio includes language that is racially offensive and obscene.
Retired players accuse the NFL and teams in the lawsuit of creating an environment in which painkillers were used recklessly. They allege they were administered powerful painkillers before games to numb existing injuries and prophylactically inhibit pain from the inevitable bumps and bruises of football.
“We found systemic abuse of narcotic painkillers and Toradol prophylactically given to players on a regular basis without any regard or concern for their personal well being,” said Steven D. Silverman, lead counsel for the painkiller lawsuit.
Toradol is the brand name for Ketorolac, a potent anti-inflammatory drug available only with a prescription and usually administered after surgery, according to the US National Library of Medicine. Toradol has the efficacy of a pain-killing opioid without being addictive, but the drug can cause internal bleeding and damage to kidneys.
When Hernandez and his teammates talked in jail phone calls about Toradol and other prescription painkillers, they did not provide concrete evidence of wrongdoing and sometimes appear to loosely use the word “illegal” even when they seem to be referring to the actions they thought violated team or league guidelines, not law enforcement issues. But Hernandez did suggest in two phone conversations with two different NFL players that he thought the Patriots pushed the bounds of the team or league drug policy — an assertion rejected by the physician who oversaw the Patriots’ medical care when Hernandez was on the team.
Warning: This audio includes language that is racially offensive and obscene.
In a jail phone call Oct. 7, 2014, Hernandez spoke to Spikes, a teammate of Hernandez at the University of Florida and on the Patriots. At the time of the call, Spikes played for the Buffalo Bills and he suggested to Hernandez that he planned to take “a little Toradol” before his next game because he had broken his ribs against the Detroit Lions.
Hernandez urged Spikes to take pills and get an injection, but Spikes told him, “They don’t give the shot no more . . . It’s illegal.”
Hernandez seemed to reference Patriots coach Bill Belichick in his response.
“It was illegal last year — the year we played — they made it illegal that year, but Bill still gave the shots,” said Hernandez, whose final season was 2012.
Hernandez continued, “They made it illegal before the season, but that’s why it was limited, you had to have a real excuse.”
Hernandez’s claim that Belichick made Toradol injections available to players was disputed as “BS” by Dr. Thomas Gill, the Patriots team physician during Hernandez’s career in Foxborough. Gill said that Belichick never tried to influence injury treatments.
“Bill totally delegated the medical stuff to the medical staff,’’ Gill said.
Hernandez was right, however, that thinking shifted about Toradol injections in his final season. The NFL does not have a leaguewide policy governing painkillers because the league does not dictate how team physicians should practice medicine, according to an NFL spokesman. Teams must follow laws governing prescription drugs, the spokesman said, but otherwise can generally formulate their own medical policies.
Like most NFL teams, the Patriots had long permitted players to routinely receive Toradol injections.
“It’s a great drug, if used properly,’’ Gill said. “The problem was, you had a lot of people lining up to get it before games.’’
Then in late 2011, a dozen players sued the NFL, claiming in part that Toradol had masked their concussion symptoms and increased their risk of suffering life-altering brain damage.
Amid the controversy, the NFL Physicians Society issued new guidelines in 2012 recommending that Toradol should be taken orally “under typical circumstances” and that injections “should not be used except following an acute, game-related injury.”
The NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy, said that “teams were not required to adopt the recommendations” and that the report “noted that, ‘each team physician is ultimately free to practice medicine as he or she feels is in the best interest of the patient.’ ”
The recommendations prompted the Patriots to limit game-day injections, according to Gill, the team’s former physician. Gill said he informed the players in Foxborough in 2012 before Hernandez’s final season. Toradol was administered orally when necessary under the new guidelines, Gill said.
Hernandez’s former teammates expressed frustration about the limits when they spoke to him in jail. In a call on July 25, 2014, Hernandez talked about restrictions on Toradol injections with his college teammate Mike Pouncey, who at the time was a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins. Hernandez suggested the Patriots had a different policy.
“If players want it,” Hernandez said, “man, they’re getting that.”