Emails reveal Falcons' concern over excessive reliance on painkillers

Emails reveal Falcons' concern over excessive reliance on painkillers

A string of emails that began in 2010 with the Atlanta Falcons head trainer and reached all the way to owner Arthur Blank showed a franchise worried about its "excessive" reliance on painkillers to treat players and the potential embarrassment that could cause the team and the NFL.

One topic raised in the email chain concerned the review by an outside agency that found the team spent $81,000 on prescriptions for medications for players in 2009 - nearly three times the league average.

Nearly every recipient on the email chain - from Blank, president Rich McKay and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to then-head athletic trainer Marty Lauzon - is still with the team, which plays New England in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

"That's being litigated now. That's not something we're going discuss right now," Dimitroff said Monday night when asked about the emails. "When the time is right, we'll readdress that."

The emails were entered into the court record Thursday as part of a proposed class-action lawsuit by more than 1,800 former NFL players who claim they were encouraged by the medical and training staffs of NFL teams to abuse painkillers and continue playing without regard for their long-term health.

The case is being heard in the Northern District of California by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup. The same allegations were originally filed in a 2014 class-action lawsuit that is currently on appeal before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The email chain was presented to the court as an example of thousands of similar documents gathered during discovery that the ex-players' lawyers want entered into the record. It was coincidental that the Falcons chain was released before the Super Bowl.

Lauzon was not with the team at the time of the critical review. He became the Falcons' head trainer in January, 2010, and currently serves as the team's director of sports medicine and performance.

He first wrote to Dimitroff in May, 2010, to note the conclusions contained in the review by SportPharm, an outside agency brought in by the NFL to look at how teams purchased, dispensed and tracked medications, including powerful painkillers and prescription drugs. Among the problems Lauzon highlighted from SportPharm's review was the Falcons' "excessive dispensation" of narcotics and other medications, which risked creating a "culture of dependency."

"Within the first days on the job, I was informed that we barely missed a DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) investigation because of improper billing issues," Lauzon also told Dimitroff.

One of the central contentions of the painkiller lawsuit is that teams did not properly keep records about prescriptions and which players were getting drugs.

Dimitroff forwarded the email to the owner just hours later.

"I thought it quite important for you to be aware of a rather sensitive subject and one we need to discuss before we include others on this topic matter," Dimitroff wrote to Blank.

"Agree - we should talk about this together with Rich (McKay, the Falcons' president)," Blank replied.

It's not clear what practices were changed as part of the discussion, and there is no evidence the Falcons violated league rules. What's clear is that Lauzon was warning team executives that practices uncovered during the review could embarrass the team and raise compliance issues with the league.

Lauzon's first email to Dimitroff also copied in Jeff Fish, who was Atlanta's strength coach at the time and was released by the club in Jan. 2013. The trainer also expressed concerns that "players at the end of their careers going through medical issues" would seek media attention and "say they abused or are now addicted" to drugs as a result of the club's practices.

Dimitroff subsequently forwarded the emails to McKay, who remains team president and also serves as chairman of the NFL Competition Committee, making him one of the more influential executives in the league.

McKay reached out the next day to Dr. Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist who controversially led the NFL's committee on brain injury at the time and later became a league medical adviser.

He asked Pellman whether Mary Anne Fleming, who was then-director of player benefits in the league office, had recommended the Falcons replace their doctors in the wake of the same critical review, and if she was aware who actually administered the club's day-to-day medical regimen.

"I need to know - is this really true and does she realize the on-site trainer is really in control???" McKay wrote, then added. "I need to keep this confidential ..."

Lauzon noted that Fleming had also seen the SportPharm review and recommended the Falcons "start clean on all levels" - a new team doctor, head trainer and even a new pharmacy account number.

The proposed class-action lawsuit alleges that NFL trainers distributed drugs improperly, and teams failed to properly store and keep accurate records of the drugs, violating federal laws.

Frank Gore returns home for his 14th NFL season


Frank Gore returns home for his 14th NFL season

Frank Gore is returning home to, in all likelihood, finish his professional football career.

Gore, 34, signed a one-year contract to enter his 14th NFL season with his hometown Miami Dolphins, the team announced Friday.

Gore grew up in Coconut Grove, Florida, and attended Coral Gables High School before playing collegiately at the University of Miami.

He played the first 10 NFL seasons with the 49ers and is the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. Gore ranks fifth in NFL history with 14,026 rushing yards – just 75 yards behind No. 4 Curtis Martin.

After rushing for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns with the 49ers, the club declined to offer him a multi-year contract following the 2014 season. Gore played the past three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.

Gore remains one of the most popular players in 49ers history. When asked recently if he would be willing to “retire” as a member of the 49ers after his final game, Gore reacted enthusiastically about the possibility.

1, Emmitt Smith 18,355
2, Walter Payton 16,726
3, Barry Sanders 15,269
4, Curtis Martin 14,101
5, Frank Gore 14,026

49ers increase competition for starting guard positions


49ers increase competition for starting guard positions

The 49ers are the fifth team to give Jonathan Cooper a chance after he arrived in the NFL as the No. 7 overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals in the 2013 draft.

Cooper, 28, caught the attention of the 49ers with his career-high 13 starts last season with the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers signed him to a one-year, $4.95 million contract this week.

“We signed him to compete for one of the guard spots as a starter,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said Thursday at Stanford's pro day. “He played very well in our minds for Dallas last year and kind of resurrected his career. He’s battled injuries, but we really like the way he played, and we think he’s a very good fit for what we do. So we were pleased to add him.”

The 49ers plan to take it slowly this offseason with Cooper, who underwent surgery after tearing the medial-collateral ligament in his left knee during the final game of the season. The 49ers report for the offseason program in mid-April.

The 49ers are certain to have at least two new starters on the offensive line. Former New York Giants center Weston Richburg was signed to replace Daniel Kilgore, who was subsequently traded to the Miami Dolphins. Brandon Fusco, who started 16 games at right guard, signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an unrestricted free agent.

Laken Tomlinson has a chance to hold onto a starting job. Acquired shortly before the start of the regular season in a trade from the Detroit Lions, Tomlinson quickly moved into the starting lineup at left guard and started the final 15 games. Tomlinson was a first-round draft pick of the Lions in 2015.

“Laken played very well the longer he was there,” Lynch said. “I think people forget with Laken, he came here in Week 1. He was kind of force-fed. We didn’t have many options. But we saw a guy get better throughout the season. He’ll get his opportunity.”

Joshua Garnett, a first-round pick of the 49ers in 2016, spent last season on injured reserve due to an a knee injury sustained in training camp. The 49ers challenged Garnett to get in better physical condition. He has been cleared for football activity.

“Joshua Garnett has been working extremely hard, so he’ll be in that mix,” Lynch said. “He did a great job embracing the time he has last year to improve as a player. He remade his body and we're looking forward to see him get after it in the offseason.

“I think he’s excited about it. He’s feeling sexy, as he says.”

Erik Magnuson, 24, won a spot on the 49ers’ roster after signing as an undrafted rookie from Michigan. Magnuson could enter into the competition at guard. He displayed unique versatility in his first season, starting two games at right tackle before sustaining a season-ending foot injury. He can also serve as a backup center.

And, perhaps, the 49ers are not finished adding to the competition. The team owns the No. 9 overall selection, and Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson could be on the radar in the unlikely event he is not selected within the top eight picks.

When asked if the 49ers could also add another player to the mix with a draft pick, Lynch answered, “We’ll see. We’re always looking to get better there.”