The NFL has taken great pains to dismiss the unannounced visits from DEA agents at three football games on Sunday as a routine investigation. But if I’m Roger Goodell, I’m running scared right now and here’s why.
The target of those investigations was medical staff members and team doctors have always been a sore spot in the NFL, a vulnerability in the league’s campaign to reign as America’s most popular sport. Players inherently distrust team doctors because, well, they’re paid to keep star linebackers and running backs on the football field. And to do that, they sometimes have to make judgment calls that conflict with the patient’s best interests—not to mention the Hippocratic Oath.
How often does a family physician send a guy with a fractured foot or a broken rib back to work with his blessing? How often does he find a way to cushion the injury or mask the pain so the patient can hurl himself back into harm’s way?
The league has long relied on the warrior mentality of the players and the public’s rabid support of their theatrics to hide the fact that it routinely chews up bodies and spits them out. Forget concussions. As any retired player can tell you, the carnage includes crippling pain, loss of mobility, mental illness, obesity and a lifetime’s worth of surgery to repair the damage—only a fraction of which is paid for by the NFL.
And no one bears witness to that damage like the team doctor—squeezed tight between his duty to heal and his desire to please a wealthy, influential employer (and often gridiron stars hell-bent on maintaining their standing on the team).
It’s telling that the DEA’s agents met only with the medical staffs of the visiting teams on Sunday. That suggests that they may be concerned about doctors and trainers transporting controlled substances across state lines. It also raises the specter of federal regulations governing who can prescribe those substances, where those prescriptions can be written, and how those prescriptions must be documented.
And it all comes in response to a lawsuit from 1,300 retired players who claim that NFL teams concealed the risk of concussions while providing them with prescription painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet and anti-inflammatories such as Toradol to keep them on the field. In a chilling scene reported by The Associated Press, former players “described the line of teammates waiting to get injections on game day often spilling out from the training room. Others recounted flights home from games where trainers walked down the aisle and players held up a number of fingers to indicate how many pills they wanted.”
That right there is enough to give a guy like Goodell a massive headache. Just imagine what it will feel like if federal agents put the squeeze on the league’s doctors.
Photos by Brian Garfinkel / AP