Three weeks ago, another lawsuit was directed at the NFL. Eight retired players were named in a class-action complaint (Marcellus Wiley was later added as a ninth) alleging that the league is responsible for fostering a culture of drug misuse that led to long-term health issues and personal losses for players over several decades. The 85-page filing details teams’ practices of distributing narcotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and local anesthetics without disclosing the possible side effects to players, as well as the teams’ encouraging excessive use and mixing of painkiller medications. The NFL has not commented publicly; Matt Matava, the Rams’ team physician and president of the NFL Physicians Society, released a statement saying he was “surprised” by the lawsuit and that “as doctors we put our players first.”
The suit naturally raised questions, including “Why now?” and “Why go after the NFL instead of individual teams?” We asked one of the named plaintiffs, Keith Van Horne, a tackle for the Chicago Bears from 1981 to 1993, for some answers.
Among his personal experiences, Van Horne says the Bears’ medical staff concealed a broken leg from him, offering Percodan and numbing injections so that he could play through the pain unaware of his real injury. He also alleges that Chicago practiced the bulk ordering of painkillers in players’ names before the season started. Today, he’s dealing with heart problems that he believes stem from painkiller overuse facilitated by the team and “stacking,” that is, taking multiple drugs at the same time without being informed of the consequences.
THE MMQB: You last played in the NFL 21 years ago. Some of the other named plaintiffs, such as J.D. Hill and Ron Pritchard, last played 37 years ago. Why now?
VAN HORNE: Another plaintiff, Jeremy Newberry, played until 2009. There are players in the class [the filing says it represents more than 500 of them, and the Associated Press reported 250 more players were later added] who have played even more recently. We have also spoken to players currently on NFL rosters, and while the NFL has taken some measures to become more compliant with the law over the last three years—and when I say the law, I mean distributing controlled substances and prescriptions—it is still [not always being followed]. What we are looking for as a result from this is medical care for players in need; medical monitoring to determine extent of damage to ex-players; compensation for pain, suffering and loss; and NFL practices and policies with regard to painkillers and anti-inflammatories in compliance with federal and state laws and current medical ethics. Which is not what has been going on. That is an important thing.
THE MMQB: But what about the statute of limitations for these claims? That would likely be part of the NFL’s defense if the lawsuit moves forward.
VAN HORNE: There is a period of years in which to file, but what’s important is knowing when that statute of limitations starts. Statutes of limitations don’t start until a plaintiff is fully informed of all the facts relevant to his cause of action, especially with fraudulent concealment. Until you know what all the drugs are, then the statute of limitations can’t start. Same with side effects. If you’re not told what the side effects are and could be down the road, and the NFL is hiding that or not keeping any records of it, the statute of limitations can’t start until you have all the information.
They’ll also use causation and personal responsibility and assumption of risk as their defense. It sounds good to say generally, but the answer should be more specific to the damage claims. These drugs are known to affect organs, especially the heart and kidneys; some have been pulled from the market, and we were never told about side effects. A lot of guys, I would say, if they had known what they would be dealing with down the road, would have stopped playing or would not have taken these drugs. You can’t talk about personal responsibility if you’re not given all the information. You assume the risk of a knee or shoulder injury, but no one imagined having permanent kidney damage. No one imagined getting addicted to drugs. Certainly there are guys who probably take some of these things for recreational use as well, store a few away, but that’s not the point. We’re not talking about recreational use. We’re talking about a team providing you with drugs just to get you to be able to play, and once you are no longer of any use, you still have those same injuries and pains, and you still need those drugs. They’ve gotten you used to taking them so you can get through the day.
THE MMQB: What prompted you to join the lawsuit?
VAN HORNE: I’ve been dealing with some medical issues I haven’t gotten answers to over the last three and a half years. I’ve had atrial fibrillations, which is an arrhythmia of the heart, since 2004, and two cardiac ablations, which is the procedure they do to try to alleviate that, but it’s not a 100 percent cure. Four or five years later, that’s when the tachycardia [rapid heartbeat] showed up. But in 2011, that’s when I started having these other issues. My face gets flushed and warm, and I get a low-grade headache, and my heart feels like it is pulsating through my whole body. Then I would get extreme episodes of dizziness that came along with it. Really dizzy, bad dizzy, where I felt like I was going to just fall over. It happened while I was driving a car, sitting in a chair, standing up, laying in bed. And it still goes on. I haven’t had a really bad dizzy spell for a couple months, but it is still going on. When it’s really bad, it can be debilitating. My whole body starts tingling, and my eyes will start moving on their own. I just kind of sit down and hang my head and try to ride it out. It can last for an hour or two and kind of ebbs away, but it always comes back. One doctor said, ‘This may be something you’ll have to learn how to deal with, manage somehow,’ which is like, great. I shouldn’t have to deal with this at 56 years old. The last three and a half years have not been fun. I have not enjoyed my life. And there are guys much worse off than I am. Jeremy Newberry, he’s got these kidney problems, and he’s not the only one. A lot of stuff we have been talking about with these drugs and their long-term effects cause these sorts of issues, heart or liver or kidney problems.
THE MMQB: You were under the care of the Bears’ medical staff, so why not go after the team? Why sue the NFL?
VAN HORNE: The NFL is the one who has fostered this environment and encouraged this environment. Get your players out on the field, we need the best product possible to maximize our profits, and you do what you need to do to get those guys out there. That’s coming from the head office. That’s why we are suing the NFL. When you come in, you know you have a chance of breaking a bone or blowing out a knee or something like that, but you don’t know they are going to lie to you about the fact that you broke a bone and give you these drugs to mask the pain so you can play, shoot you up and get you through. You add all that up over 13 years, what damage does that do to somebody’s body? It’s gotta do something. The NFL has made a drug culture part of the game, and treating former players should just be the cost of doing business. They should be responsible for that.
THE MMQB: Critics have questioned the motives behind the lawsuit. What is your response?
VAN HORNE: I knew there would be ramifications, and there are and there will be. Trust me, I am not going to be welcomed to any Chicago Bears’ events. They’re not happy about [this lawsuit]. Nobody has said that, and that’s not a stated fact, but I imagine that probably is true. And I’m sure there’s a lot of players and fans who think maybe we’re just looking for a money grab, and we’re traitors.
What I want to emphasize is that part of this lawsuit is we’re trying to seek an injunction that would create an NFL-funded testing and monitoring program to help prevent addiction and injuries and disabilities related to the use of painkillers—not only for the current players but for the future players down the road, and also to provide help for guys like us who need help now because of these things. This isn’t selfish. We’re trying to better the game, better the system. We are trying to make a change in the culture and hold the NFL accountable for this environment that they fostered, that has been going on for years. The NFL doesn’t pay attention to anybody until they get sued. They’ve got a lot of money, a lot of connections, they’re basically a monopoly, and they don’t really have to answer to anybody. And so, unfortunately, this is how you have to get their attention. Hopefully we’re going to help people down the road, if this continues forward. Who knows? It could get thrown out; we don’t know. They are a powerful group. But I don’t think it will be, because you can’t refute all these people saying the same things.