Opening another legal attack on the NFL over the long-term health of its athletes, a group of retired players accused the league in a lawsuit of cynically supplying them with powerful painkillers and other drugs that kept them in the game, but led to serious complications later in life.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages on behalf of more than 500 former athletes, charges the NFL with putting profits ahead of players' health.
To speed injured athletes' return to the field, team doctors and trainers dispensed drugs illegally, without prescriptions or warning of the possible side effects, the plaintiffs contend.
Some football players said they were never told they had broken bones and were instead fed pills to mask the pain. One said that instead of surgery, he was given anti-inflammatory drugs and excused from practices, so he could play in games. Others said that after years of free pills from the NFL, they retired addicted to painkillers.
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, in Atlanta for the league's spring meetings, said: "We have not seen the lawsuit, and our attorneys have not had an opportunity to review it."
The case comes less than a year after the NFL agreed to pay US$765 million to settle lawsuits from thousands of retired players who accused it of concealing the risks of concussions. A federal judge has yet to approve the settlement, expressing concern the amount is too small.
The athletes in the concussion case blamed dementia and other health problems on the bone-crushing hits that helped lift pro football to new heights of popularity.
The new lawsuit was filed in federal court in San Francisco and names eight players as plaintiffs, including three members of the NFL champion 1985 Chicago Bears: quarterback Jim McMahon, Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent and offensive lineman Keith Van Horne.
More than 500 other ex-players had signed on, said lawyers, who are seeking class-action status for the case. Six of the plaintiffs also took part in the concussion-related litigation, including McMahon and Van Horne.
"The NFL knew of the debilitating effects of these drugs on all of its players and callously ignored the players' long-term health in its obsession to return them to play," said Steven Silverman, a lawyer for the players.
As a result of masking their pain with drugs, players developed heart, lung and nerve ailments; kidney failure; and chronic injuries to muscles, bones and ligaments, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit says players were routinely given drugs that included narcotic painkillers Percodan, Percocet and Vicodin, anti-inflammatories such as Toradol, and sleep aids such as Ambien.
Toradol, which can be injected, was described as "the current game-day drug of choice of the NFL". It may raise the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure or intestinal bleeding.
After receiving numbing injections and pills before kick-off, players got more drugs and sleep aids after games, "to be washed down by beer", the lawsuit says.
Kyle Turley, who played for three teams in his eight-year career, said drugs were "handed out to us like candy".
"There was a room set up near the locker room and you got in line," Turley said. "Obviously, we were grown adults and we had a choice. But when a team doctor is saying this will take the pain away, you trust them."
McMahon said he suffered a broken neck and ankle during his career, but instead of sitting out, he received medication and was pushed back onto the field. He also became addicted to painkillers, at one point taking more than 100 Percocet pills per month, even in the off season, the lawsuit says.
Van Horne played an entire season on a broken leg and was not told about the injury for five years, the lawsuit says.