Column: Painkiller abuse a horrifying truth of the NFL

By Ron Cook - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The story jumped off the front page of Saturday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It was based on a Washington Post report that detailed a lawsuit involving 1,800 players alleging NFL teams ignored federal drug laws for decades in prescribing players with powerful, addictive painkillers. A quote attributed to former Steelers center Jeff Hartings was especially horrifying. “It definitely takes the pain away for that three, four or five hours on game day, but you pay for it the next day. And the pain is four-to-five times worse. … Your body feels like it’s crawling in its own skin. You were coming down because you were so drugged up on game days.”

I immediately thought of Jerome Bettis, who has talked of being in so much pain that he often had to crawl to the bathroom on Mondays after games. Bettis touched the ball 3,886 times, including postseason games, during his Hall of Fame career. That is a lot of hard hits. And Bettis gave as well as he received.

I also thought of a conversation I had with Maurkice Pouncey last season. I’m still embarrassed, after hearing his answer, that I asked him if he felt injury-prone.

“I think the media and the outside world look at this sport and think guys should never get hurt,” Pouncey said. “They look at it like it’s basketball or something. This is a gladiator sport. What do you guys think? We’re 300-pound men playing as physical as we can. You think no one is going to get hurt? It’s almost comical. It’s not like we’re sitting at a desk and writing papers all day.”

Pouncey is right. Few people on the outside realize what it takes to survive in the brutal world of pro football. Those who do have a hard time sympathizing with the players. The players know what they are getting into when they sign up, right? They are well-compensated for their pain (no one talks about the millions and millions more made by the owners). So what if many will be crippled or have neurological disorders after they are done playing? This is the life they choose.

“Your body feels like it’s crawling in its own skin.”

I’m having a hard time getting by that Hartings quote.

I understand why players do what they do. Many willingly play through concussions and ask for the painkillers to be able to stay on the field. At nearly all costs, they have to stay on the field. They love the glory and the money. The money allows them to take care of their family.

“I’m willing to go through hell so my kids don’t have to,” James Harrison said famously a few years ago.

That attitude still exists in the NFL. That’s why no one should have been surprised by the painkillers story. Players used to be able to walk into the trainer’s room and take handfuls of pain medication. They talked openly about “taking a shot” to be able to keep playing. Bettis made national news during the 2001 season when he missed a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens because the team doctor missed his spot in Bettis’ groin with a painkilling injection, deadening a nerve in Bettis’ leg. Many were horrified. Not out of fear for Bettis’ health. Out of concern for what his absence would do for the Steelers’ chances. They won that game, 27-10.

Who says we don’t have our priorities in order?

No one also should have been surprised about the doctors’ alleged role in dispensing painkillers against the law. They are in a tough spot. They have to keep the players happy. They also have to keep the coach, general manager and owner happy. They especially have to keep their bosses happy if they want to hold onto their high-profile job as a team doctor. They do that by keeping their players on the field.

Steelers team physician Anthony Yates is named throughout the court documents for prescribing non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and other controlled substances well above the NFL average even as he was an advocate for more league control of the dispensing of painkillers. Maybe the NFL will listen to Yates’ pleas now that the lawsuit has been revealed. The league finally decided to take concussions seriously after a number of lawsuits were filed. It didn’t do it so much because it cares about its players. I don’t believe that for one second. It did it because it wanted to protect its filthy-rich bottom line. Maybe the same attitude will result in tighter regulation of painkillers, although it’s hard to imagine players playing week after week without the aid of pharmaceuticals.

This latest lawsuit is another public-relations black eye for the Steelers and the rest of the NFL, although they surely will get past it and continue to thrive. Tell the truth. Do you really care what the doctors do? Do you care what the players take? Do you care what happens to the players long term? Does anything matter other than the entertainment you get from watching enormous men beating the heck out of each other with ferocious hits?

You don’t have to say anything.

I know the answers.


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By Ron Cook

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette