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Lawsuit: NFL illegally used drugs

WASHINGTON — A group of retired NFL players said in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the league, thirsty for profits, illegally supplied them with risky narcotics and other painkillers that numbed their injuries for games and led to medical complications down the road.

The league obtained and administered the drugs illegally, without prescriptions and without warning players of their potential side effects, to speed the return of injured players to the field and maximize profits, the lawsuit alleges. Players said they were never told about broken legs and ankles and instead were fed pills to mask the pain. One said that instead of surgery, he was given anti-inflammatories and skipped practices so he could play in money-making games. And others said that after years of free pills from the NFL, they retired from the league addicted to the painkillers.

“The goal here is to compensate these players and make sure the practice stops with future players,” said Andrew G. Slutkin of Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White LLC in Baltimore, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

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 complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, and a copy was shared with The Associated Press ahead of the filing. Sliverman Thompson is handling the case along with Namanny, Byrne & Owens P.C. in California. The firms are working together on a concussion-related lawsuit filed by former National Hockey League players, which is how the NFL players found them, according to Slutkin. One of the California lawyers, Mel T. Owens, is a former first-round NFL draft pick and 10-year veteran.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a landmark case that accused the league of concealing known risks from players’ concussions. The NFL settled that case for $765 million last year. No blame was assessed, and players received no punitive damages.

The drug lawsuit names eight players, including three members of the NFL champion 1985 Chicago Bears: Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent, offensive lineman Keith Van Horne and quarterback Jim McMahon. Lawyers seek class-action status, and they say in the filing that more than 500 other former players have signed on to the lawsuit.

McMahon said in the lawsuit that he suffered a broken neck and ankle during his career but rather than sitting out, he received medications and was pushed back on to the field. Team doctors and trainers never told him about the injuries, according to the lawsuit.

McMahon also became addicted to painkillers, at one point taking more than 100 Percocet pills per month, even in the offseason, the lawsuit says. Team-employed doctors and trainers illegally administered the drugs, the lawsuit alleges, because they didn’t get prescriptions, keep records or explain side effects.

Van Horne played an entire season on a broken leg and wasn’t told about the injury for five years, “during which time he was fed a constant diet of pills to deal with the pain,” the lawsuit says.

Slutkin said getting such high-profile, named plaintiffs — Dent was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 — showed the lawsuit’s allegations did not just affect journeyman players.

“It was important for us to include them to show this is something that affects the best of players,” Slutkin said.

Among the eight named plaintiffs, six were also plaintiffs in concussion-related litigation, including McMahon and Van Horne.

The latest lawsuit seeks an injunction creating an NFL-funded testing and monitoring program to help prevent addiction and injuries and disabilities related to the use of painkillers. It also seeks unspecified financial damages.

“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, another lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Former offensive lineman Jeremy Newberry described lining up in the San Francisco 49ers’ locker room with other players to receive powerful anti-inflammatory injections in their buttocks shortly before kickoff. Newberry played for San Francisco from 1998 to 2006, including one season in which played in every game but never practiced because of pain from his injuries, according to the lawsuit.

He retired in 2009, and because of the drugs he took while playing, he now suffers from renal failure, high blood pressure and violent headaches, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit seeks class-action status for any former players who received narcotic painkillers, anti-inflammatories, local anesthetics, sleeping aids or other drugs without prescription, independent diagnosis or warning about side effects or the dangers from mixing with other drugs.

“I was provided uppers, downers, painkillers, you name it while in the NFL,” plaintiff J.D. Hill, who played for seven years in the 1970s, said in a statement. “I became addicted and turned to the streets after my career and was homeless. Never took a drug in my life, and I became a junkie in the NFL.”

Slutkin said the plaintiff class could end up in the thousands. Silverman Thompson’s phone lines were flooded with calls after the lawsuit’s filing was announced Tuesday morning, he says.

The Associated Press and Daily Record legal affairs reporter Danny Jacobs contributed to this article.