The New NFL Investigation Should Make Trainers Nervous

The Drug Enforcement Agency’s inquiry into painkiller distribution could end with actual sentencings.

Jim McMahon was always a tough guy. During the Bears’ 1985 championship season, McMahon repeatedly speared defenders and slid head-first upfield despite coaches’ warnings that he could hurt himself. Back in the locker room, he dealt with the pain by gobbling Percocets like Tic-Tacs, taking more than a hundred a month. According to a New York Daily News exclusive published today, the DEA is now investigating who was supplying McMahon and the 1,300 other players suing the NFL for illegally providing prescription drugs without explaining long-term risks. Hopefully the inquiry, which may be the first such probe to end with the naming of names, will bring greater transparency to the league, but the whole effort feels a bit like Sundance complaining that he can’t swim. The fall is what gets you.

Jim McMahon doesn’t have early-stage dementia or suffer from headaches so strong he considered suicide because a Bears trainer spoon-fed him opioids three decades ago. McMahon has health issues because he spent over 20 years playing smash-mouth football. Had McMahon gone – in 1984 – to a doctor who didn’t give a damn about the Bears’ record and asked what he could do to ensure his long term health, that doctor absolutely would have told him to stop taking so many painkillers. But that hypothetical doctor would certainly have also been obligated to advise him to stop doing the thing that was causing him pain in the first place: playing football. 

Playing professional football is unhealthy. The massive concussion lawsuit currently underway is about whether or not the NFL knew exactly how unhealthy and when they knew it, but no one ever thought taking the field was a medically sound decision. Not to be reductive, but just try playing sometime: It hurts. And though there are ways to mitigate that hurt and the damage it denotes, there will always be a tradeoff. 

Hard as it may be to believe, NFL doctors are not just franchise employees focused on triage in the service of winning. NFL doctors are – the good ones anyway – medical professionals charged with ameliorating the side effects of a long-term, treatable condition called football. Jim McMahon had a horrible case of football and, from the sounds of it, a horrible doctor as well. That’s a concern worth investigating, but that investigation is utterly different from the inquiry into what NFL executives knew about concussions, which ones knew it, and what they did collectively to hide the truth. The drug inquiry can only be about two things: malpractice and illegal distribution of prescription narcotics. Those crimes have individual perpetrators.

During the mid-’80s, Jim McMahon was a massive star. He was beloved for being tough and taking risks. Did the league do everything it could have done to moderate those risks? Probably not. Did McMahon do everything he could have done to moderate his risk? Definitely not. Does any of that matter if a doctor committed malpractice or an individual committed a felony by passing out Schedule-2 narcotics? Absolutely not. The DEA has opened what is perhaps the first investigation into football that could have a satisfying conclusion. There were bad men. They deserve to go to jail. There may still be bad men. They can give the others a bit of company.

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