The NFL faces new litigation from former players — including three members of the Super Bowl XX champion Bears — after a lawsuit was filed Tuesday claiming the league illegally administered painkilling drugs and encouraged players to play while injured.
Lawyers are seeking class-action status for the suit that features eight named plaintiffs — including former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive end Richard Dent and offensive tackle Keith Van Horne — and more than 500 unnamed plaintiffs.
The suit alleges that the NFL and its teams prioritized profit over health while subjecting players to a “culture of drug misuse” in which injuries were improperly diagnosed and treated and players’ returns to the field were expedited by the unethical and illegal administration of narcotics and other painkilling drugs.
An NFL spokesman said Tuesday that the league’s attorneys had yet to review the suit and that the league would not comment at this time.
An associate of McMahon’s told the Tribune that the former quarterback would not comment on the suit, preferring to let the attorneys handle it. Attempts to reach Van Horne and Dent were unsuccessful.
In an 85-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, there is no shortage of alarming allegations about how players were mistreated during their careers.
McMahon, who played for six teams during his 15 years in the NFL, contends in the suit that he received “hundreds if not thousands” of shots from doctors plus a high volume of pills from trainers without any warnings from the NFL on possible side effects.
McMahon also said he believes he suffered a broken neck and later a broken ankle while playing, with neither injury revealed to him by the teams for which he was playing.
The outspoken former quarterback said in the suit he ultimately developed a harmful painkiller dependency that had him taking more than 100 Percocets per month, even in the offseason. McMahon further detailed what he said was his rampant use of Toradol, amphetamines, muscle relaxers and sleeping pills during his career.
Van Horne, the starting right tackle on the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl championship team, asserts in the lawsuit that during a playoff game against the Giants, he could not lift one of his arms but was given four Percodan, an anti-inflammatory narcotic, during the game to allow him to play. He said he was not warned of side effects.
Van Horne also alleges that he played an entire season on a broken leg and that team doctors and officials never disclosed to him the extent of his injury. He needed a special medical boot to reduce swelling in the leg that season and, according to the suit, was “fed a constant diet of pills to deal with the pain.”
Van Horne learned of the severity of that leg injury five years later, the suit contends.
And Dent, a Hall of Famer and the MVP of Super Bowl XX, says in the suit he has permanent nerve damage in his foot from a broken bone he suffered during a 1990 game against the Seahawks. Rather than have surgery to fix the injury, the suit says, the Bears medical staff encouraged Dent to use painkillers to keep playing.
“Trusting that the doctors and trainers had his best interests at heart,” the lawsuit says, “he chose to continue playing and for the following eight weeks, he received repeated injections of painkillers as well as pills to keep playing.”
Mel Owens, among the attorneys representing the players, said the “culture of the NFL” is to blame for widespread abuse of painkillers and not the players themselves.
“When you’re 22 years old, and you present yourself to the doctor after the game and tell him your shoulder hurts, and he gets on his Dictaphone and says, ‘No. 50 has a shoulder injury. We’re going to load him up with a Special K...’” Owens said. “And you go, ‘What’s that?’ And he says, ‘Don’t worry about it, son.’ And then you think, ‘Well, this guy’s a doctor. I’m at the best of the best. He has my best interest at heart ...’
“This is what’s happening. This is the NFL. It’s the NFL’s culture. They created it. So, no, there’s no culpability for the players.”
Dent and McMahon also allege in the suit that, during the early part of their careers, amphetamines were readily available to players without prescription in locker-room jars.
Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.