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Former players say they were never warned about painkiller side effects


The mainstream news media continues to take significant notice of the latest lawsuit filed by former players against the NFL.

On Thursday’s edition of NBC’s Today, two of the plaintiffs discussed the situation during a studio interview, J.D. Hill and Ron Pritchard.

“We had medication to go to sleep before games,” Hill told Matt Lauer. “We had painkillers before the game, we had painkillers at halftime, painkillers after the game. Then you would get beer. No one ever told us [about the effects].”

The players wanted the drugs so that they could play; the argument is that the doctors made it too easy.

“Why are they putting it on the shelf for me to take?” Pritchard said. “Are they wrong for having it there? They put it there for a reason and in that culture and that competition and that level of football and athletics, it’s going to happen. They knew you were going to take that pill.”

“We didn’t know about [the side effects],” Hill said. “We didn’t know we should even have that information.”

The NFL responded with a written statement provided by Dr. Matthew Matava, president of the NFL Physicians Society.

“As the president of the NFL Physicians Society, I am surprised by this lawsuit,” Dr. Matava said in the statement. “As an NFL team doctor for the past 14 years, I have seen first hand the outstanding medical care that team doctors provide to players on and off the field. I will leave it to others to respond to the specific allegations of the lawsuit, but as doctors we put our players first.”

That may be the case now. The question is whether the NFL’s doctors followed that approach in the past, or whether they did whatever they had to do to ensure that the players would be able to play.

For decades, it was believed that some if not many (if not all) NFL physicians managed the inherent conflict of interest between their patients (the players) and their employers (the teams) by doing whatever needed to be done to allow players to play -- especially since the players wanted to play. That culture, to the extent it existed, has changed. All that’s left to decide is whether that culture, to the extent it existed, creates liability for the NFL.

If it’s true that doctors provided prescription medication to players without ever providing information about the potential side effects to the players, that’s a problem for the NFL. While a plausible argument can be made that the league wasn’t fully aware of the extent of the risks of concussions until the last 5-7 years, the risks of FDA-regulated prescription medications typically are known from the moment the drugs are approved for use. Even if the players still would have taken the medications with knowledge of the risks, federal law requires that information to be provided.