Jim McMahon reminds us that the abuse of painkillers in the NFL is a critical issue.
Editor’s Note: We first published this post on November 13, 2014, under the title The NFL and Painkillers, Another Developing Situation. It is still a problem today, highlighted by Jim McMahon’s recent interview (video below).
Ratings for the NFL are higher than ever, but the bad news about player safety seems to get worse by the day.
A little over a month ago, former NFL ball-boy Eric Kester penned a New York Times editorial entitled What I Saw as an N.F.L. Ball Boy. It was about the use of the seemingly harmless sideline remedy, smelling salts. What he saw was troubling:
I lay awake at night wondering how many lives were irreparably damaged by my most handy ball boy tool: smelling salts. On game days my pockets were always full of these tiny ammonia stimulants that, when sniffed, can trick a brain into a state of alertness. After almost every crowd-pleasing hit, a player would stagger off the field, steady himself the best he could, sometimes vomit a little, and tilt his head to the sky. Then, with eyes squeezed shut in pain, he’d scream “Eric!” and I’d dash over and say, “It’s O.K., I’m right here, got just what you need.”
A sniff of my salts would revive the player in alertness only, and he would run back onto the field to once again collide with opponents with the force of a high-speed car crash. As fans high-fived and hell-yeahed and checked the progress of their fantasy teams, and as I eagerly scrambled onto the field to pick up shattered fragments from exploded helmets, researchers were discovering the rotting black splotches of brain tissue that indicate chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Cameramen know not to show players sniffing salts, and I participated in similar acts of cover-up. One of my jobs was sorting through postgame laundry. Cleaner uniforms would be set aside for football card companies to purchase for their line of “game-used inserts.” Dirty uniforms, meanwhile, like all the girdles filled with blood and feces because some hits are savage enough to overpower the central nervous system, I’d put in a special bin for disposal.
Last week brought news that the DEA was initiating an investigation into NFL teams’ use of painkillers. The investigation was reportedly spurred by allegations of widespread abuse of painkillers that have come to light in a class action lawsuit against the league that is pending in California.
Most recently, Hall of Fame Quarterback, Fran Tarkenson wrote a brief but powerful Letter to the Editor that was published in today’s New York Times, in which he applauds the investigation and shares his own personal experience with being shot up with painkillers and sent back on the field:
Peeling back the curtain of secrecy and cover-up that has surrounded the problems of domestic violence and the abuse of painkillers in the N.F.L. has exposed a web of deceit that goes back as far as, or further than, when I played quarterback starting in 1961.
I experienced firsthand how the N.F.L. abused its power when I was shot up with anti-inflammatory drugs like Butazolidin to keep me on the playing field.
Tarkenton’s story will surely be the first of many in this new and troubling developing “situation” for the NFL.
**UPDATE July 2016**
For more Good Men Project Sports coverage of concussion-related issues coming out of the NFL and youth sports, check out:
- Why The Latest Lies By The NFL and USA Football About Head Trauma, Concussions, and the Safety of the Sport Matter (July 28, 2016)
- The Man Whose ‘Crusade Could Change Football Forever’ Speaks With Us About Concussions and the NFL (November 17, 2014)
- Ex-NFL Player Talks Brain Trauma, Greed and Blame: Part II (November 18, 2014)
- Ex-NFL Player Talks Brain Trauma, Greed and Blame: Part 1 (November 17, 2014)
- Is the NFL’s Culture of Violence Causing a Crisis of American Masculinity? (November 10, 2014)
- Athletes’ ‘Killer Instinct’ – In Words. In Pictures. And In Your Face (November 5, 2014)
- High School Football Deaths Stir Memories of Ugly Youth Football Moments (October 10, 2014)
- The End of Football for Men and Boys? Readers and Experts Discuss Where We Go From Here (Oct. 5, 2014)
- The NFL’s Concussion Problem Just Got A Lot Worse (Sept. 30, 2014)
- Roger S. Goodell, Will You Please Go Now? (Sept. 22, 2014)
- We May Be Right. We May Be Crazy: Musings on the NFL’s Violence Problem (Sept. 16, 2014)
- The National Football League: Too Big To Fail? (Sept. 13, 2014)
Photo Credit: Associated Press/Carlos Osorio