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The NFL’s Conflicted Relationship With Doctors

NFL injuryToo often doctors, trainers and other health care professionals who work for professional sports teams are accountable only to their teams and, especially, team owners. To keep their jobs they have to keep coaches, general managers, fans and billionaire investors happy.

This situation has created an intolerable ethical mess in which athletes’ health is too often their lowest priority. It is time to fix that.

Concussions are giving professional football, hockey and other sports a huge headache these days. The implication is that the NFL, NHL and their doctors long knew that “getting your bell rung” was bad for an athlete’s brain but said nothing.

Now a group of former NFL players are suing the league claiming that they were given powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs to keep them on the field. They say no one ever warned them about the long-term dangers of addiction, horrible side-effects or playing injured while drugged to withstand pain.

The eight plaintiffs, led by 1985 Superbowl champions Richard Dent, Jim McMahon and Keith Van Horne, say the league “recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profit.”

Team doctors and trainers “were handing out drugs like it was Halloween candy,” says the group’s attorney Steve Silverman. Among the drugs said to be given freely were Toradol, Percocet, Vicodin, Ambien, Prednisone and Lidocaine. The eight players estimate they were given “hundreds, if not thousands” of pills through the course of their careers.

None of this comes as a surprise to sports fans, especially those of a certain age, who remember the NFL, NHL, MLB, NASCAR, FIFA, pro cycling and NBA of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when doctors and trainers kept athletes going at any cost with any pill, salve, injection, bandage, device or inhaler they could get their hands on.

“Just win, baby” was the guiding ethical principle of the era and doctors and trainers put aside their oaths and codes to make sure stars played, their team won, the fans were happy and the owners renewed their contracts for another season.

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