doctor dispensing medicine pills in cup_1I see that another large group of NFL players have filed suit against the League– excuse me, against its 32 member teams– for a range of problems including addiction to painkillers prescribed for them in considerable quantities by club doctors during the course of their  playing careers. This is in some respects a rerun of an earlier suit, an unsuccessful one, that featured a number of very recognizable names, including the former quarterback of the legendary Chicago Bears teams of the 80’s. This go-round, the plaintiffs are journeyman players, not stars, and  rather than negligence, the teams are accused of conspiracy.

The idea is that clubs conspired to force players who were injured to play anyway, when it clearly wasn’t in their best medical interest. Their weapon: Team docs and their prescription pads. It could be a difficult case to prove, since the players were all consenting adults under contract and being compensated at the elevated level of pro sports, but the plaintiffs attorney seems convinced he has a chance.

Lord knows the retired players need the money. It’s all about heavy medical bills for a seemingly unending series of ailments, for which the League refuses to take responsibility.

A prominent attorney once explained to me that a court of law is perhaps the worst place to determine the truth of anything. There’s just too much law involved. Most we can hope for is a determination of legal responsibility, which  is quite different.

One thing is certain: The culture of the NFL is heavily incentivized towards the need to show up on game day. There are only 16 regular season contests in pro football, versus 162 in baseball and 82 NBA games, so each one represents a significant chunk of the total and missing a game for any reason can theoretically put the team at a disadvantage, far more than in other team sports. And pro football has a longstanding tradition that involves gritting your teeth and playing, no matter what. Otherwise, as one player stereotyped charmingly, we might as well be watching ladies’ tennis.

So in practice we have players heavily incentivized to play and doctors heavily incentivized to help them, and clubs who prefer to maintain an aura of plausible deniability. It’s not hard to see how the combination could result in retirees whose serious, life threatening drug problems would plague them for decades, even unto death.

I’m reminded of gladiators in Ancient Rome.”We who are about to die salute you.” Life was cheap then. Maybe in some ways it still is.


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