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.

Richard Sherman says 'majority didn't want to hear' Colin Kaepernick's message

Richard Sherman says 'majority didn't want to hear' Colin Kaepernick's message

Richard Sherman always understood Colin Kaepernick's message, even if he didn't support the method in which Kaepernick delivered it.

After the now-former 49ers quarterback sat during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason game in 2016, Sherman -- then with the Seattle Seahawks -- said at the time that Kaepernick "could have picked a better platform and a better way to do it," but the cornerback noted Kaepernick was "talking about the oppression of African Americans in this country, and that has been going on for a long time."

Kaepernick consistently insisted that his protest, in which he opted to kneel after consulting with former Seahawks long snapper and Green Beret Nate Boyer, was a demonstration against police brutality toward African Americans and institutional racism. The QB said it was not directed at members of the military, past or present, but his critics -- ranking as high as soon-to-be-President Donald Trump -- argued Kaepernick was disrespecting his country, its flag and its military service members.

Now, with Kaepernick's protest gaining renewed attention as protestors demonstrate against police brutality and racism around the world following the death of 46-year-old George Floyd -- an African American man -- in Minneapolis police custody last week, Sherman doesn't think the QB's message was misunderstood.

He thinks most people just chose to ignore it.

"He was really straightforward because this has been an issue forever," the 49ers cornerback told NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry in a text. "I don't think the message got lost, I think the majority didn't want to hear the message because they didn't feel like it impacted their lives so they avoided an uncomfortable conversation."

Along those lines, Sherman told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer earlier this week that he was "impressed" with white quarterbacks like Carson Wentz, Joe Burrow and Ryan Tannehill speaking out after Floyd's death because "their voices carry different weight than the black voices for some people."

The Stanford alumnus said back in the 2016 season that people were "missing the point" of Kaepernick's protest, disregarding it by "saying he's not patriotic." A year later, as Kaepernick remained unsigned into the regular season and Sherman began what would be his last season in Seattle, Sherman said people were "closing their ears" because Kaepernick kneeled as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

The outspoken cornerback thought New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees did that Wednesday when he told Yahoo Finance that any players who would protest during the upcoming season would be "disrespecting the flag." Sherman tweeted that Brees was "beyond lost."

[RELATED: Poole: Brees reveals he's part of problem, not solution]

Four years later, with Floyd's death -- as well as those of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman who was fatally shot in her home by Louisville police, and Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man who was followed, shot and killed by two white men while jogging in his neighborhood -- fresh in the minds of protestors around the world, people are demonstrating in support of Kaepernick's message and demanding change.

Sherman said it was there all along. Now, more people are choosing to listen.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Pete Carroll lauds Colin Kaepernick protest, which Seahawks nixed visit for

Pete Carroll lauds Colin Kaepernick protest, which Seahawks nixed visit for

Pete Carroll praised former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's 2016 protest of police brutality against African Americans and institutional racism earlier this week, nearly three years after Carroll's Seattle Seahawks opted not to sign Kaepernick as a free agent and over two after they reportedly postponed a workout because Kaepernick wouldn't commit to no longer kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.

"I think that there was a moment in time that a young man captured," Carroll told Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on Tuesday on The Ringer's "Flying Coach" podcast (via ESPN's Nick Friedell). "He took a stand on something, figuratively took a knee, but he stood up for something he believed in -- and what an extraordinary moment it was that he was willing to take. ... But what happened from the process is it elevated awareness from people that just took everything away from what the statement was all about, and it just got tugged and pulled and ripped apart.

"And the whole mission of what the statement was, such a beautiful ... it's still the statement that we're making right today. We're not protecting our people. We're not looking after one another. We're not making the right choices. We're not following the right process to bring people to justice when actions are taken. So I think it was a big sacrifice in the sense that a young man makes, but those are the courageous moments that some guys take. And we owe a tremendous amount to him for sure."

Kaepernick was a free agent in 2017 following a season in which he kneeled during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before games as part of his protest. He opted out of his contract with the 49ers after the team's new regime, led by general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, told Kaepernick he would be released if he didn't. Kaepernick visited the Seahawks in May, but Seattle opted not to sign him.

“He’s a starter in this league,” Carroll said on June 2 (H/T Andre Vergara). “We have a starter (Russell Wilson), but he is a starter in this league and I can’t imagine somebody won’t give him a chance to play.”

Neither the Seahawks, nor any other team, did that season or in the two that followed. Kaepernick was set to visit with the Seahawks in April 2018, but Seattle didn't bring the QB in for a workout after he didn't reveal whether he would continue to kneel during the national anthem, according to multiple reports that Carroll later said were "blown up." The 32-year-old quarterback sued the NFL for collusion later that year as he remained unsigned, settling it last February.

Carroll said the Seahawks planned to attend Kaepernick's NFL-arranged workout at the Atlanta Falcons' last November, but they were unable to send a scout after Kaepernick moved the location to a high school outside of Atlanta when the NFL barred media access and asked him to sign a waiver Kaepernick's lawyers deemed unusual.

“I’m disappointed. We had planned to be at that workout,” Carroll said on Nov. 19 (H/T Tacoma News Tribune's Gregg Bell). “It got changed around and we couldn’t work with it. Unfortunately, we sent somebody but couldn’t stay with the changes that happened. We missed it."

Kaepernick's protest has received renewed attention following the death of 46-year-old George Floyd, an African American man, in Minneapolis police custody last Monday. Fired police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as he pleaded that he couldn't breathe, and now faces charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers at the scene face charges of aiding and abetting murder.

Floyd's death, occurring within months of two white men shooting and killing 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery during a jog in his Georgia neighborhood and Louisville police's fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in her home, set off worldwide protests and demonstrations of the same issues Kaepernick highlighted nearly four years ago.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media on Aug. 29, 2016 after sitting during the national anthem before a preseason game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street, and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick, after consulting with Green Beret and former Seahawk Nate Boyer, would ultimately kneel during the anthem.

[RELATED: Poole: Brees reveals he's part of problem, not solution]

Seahawks starting quarterback Russell Wilson told reporters Wednesday on a video conference that it was a question for Carroll if the Seahawks missed an opportunity to advance Kaepernick's message by signing him, but said Kaepernick "could definitely be on our roster for sure."

Carroll, meanwhile, said Tuesday on "Flying Coach" that he thinks he can do more to advance causes of racial equality after seeing protests unfold around the world in the last week.

"We have to go beyond and act and take the action, and it's going to be a challenge for people," Carroll said. "I feel frustrated I'm not doing enough. I'm not on it enough. I can't get active enough to create the change. I think we need to make progress, not just change."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]