Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated
Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

Why I’m Suing the NFL

Former Bears tackle Keith Van Horne is battling heart conditions and bouts of extreme dizziness. He blames team doctors for issuing excessive doses of painkillers and no warning about the risks

By
Jenny Vrentas
· More from Jenny·

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.

Bears tackle Keith Van Horne (l.) and quarterback Jim McMahon before Super Bowl XX in January 1986. (Eric Risberg/AP)
Bears tackle Keith Van Horne (l.) and quarterback Jim McMahon before Super Bowl XX in January 1986. (Eric Risberg/AP)

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.

van-horne-combo-inline-800

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.

More on the Lawsuit

Michael McCann breaks down the painkiller lawsuit and how the league will likely defend itself. FULL STORY


To reduce need for prescription drugs, Andrew Brandt wonders if the NFL would ease marijuana restrictions in exchange for HGH testing? FULL STORY


Peter King takes issue with the merits of the painkiller lawsuit. FULL STORY


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.

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27 comments
RShannon
RShannon

Keith what about the partying at River Shannon ? 

KimberleyO'Brien
KimberleyO'Brien

Interesting story is this the first time that athletes have file a lawsuit related to drug abuse?  I've never heard about a case like this before. 

Whatever
Whatever

I think there is equal fault on the players and the teams. Certainly the past 10-40 years fostered the Tough Guy image for the NFL -- rub some dirt in it, get back out there. But the players pushed that image even more than the teams and NFL, and they peer pressured their fellow players to be tougher, to out-tough the next guy, to be Superman. They also made the decision to take additional drugs for pain; no one forced them to shoot up.

If the NFL (or individual teams) did cover up or fail to inform players about the effects to taking pain killers so frequently, then those teams/doctors/NFL should be responsible. But the players also have a duty to ask, and to take personal responsibility for what they take. How about getting second opinions?

DougBond
DougBond

Atrial Fib?  C'mon man....not uncommon at all in a 56 year old man who did NOT play football!  Take your Coumadin and enjoy your retirement.

shapiroesquire
shapiroesquire

Sounds like you should sue The Chicago Bears in particular.

LarryALocklear
LarryALocklear

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JamesJameson
JamesJameson

I surprised this type of things hasn't happened earlier. I can't believe how the NFL makes billions off of these players yet won't take care of them when they need help. Brain injury isn't the only type of injury these players can get. They can develop back pain, arthritis, and other issues later in life. the game may be directly responsible for these and other conditions. Source: my doctor

entprof
entprof

Why doesn't the NFL simply take care of it's own? Why doesn't the NFLPA simply take care of former players? It is a multibillion dollar business use some of it to take care of the players who built the damn business. Why risk the brand by making them sue?

mdamulligan
mdamulligan

Here is my problem with this, why is there no law suit against the NCAAF? This is where there is a greater potential source of litigation. How many kids have played college ball or even high school without any proper medical staffing. Who is to say most of these head injuries or other medical problems didn't start there or in high school? I played half my senior year, in high school,with a broken ankle that I was told was just a simple sprain.

Eldrick
Eldrick

and i would do it again

tz1238
tz1238

I truly feel sorry for Keith, what he has described has been my life for over 20 years and I didn't play football

Or ever had a serious head injury. I know many people with serious dizziness issues and I agree with what the doc said.

Learn to live with It. The worst part of the dizziness issue is freaking out about it. It's called Labrynthitis, and it's quite common. It sucks, but you can live with. Nobody likes having it but it's not like you have a choice.

GeekyHughes
GeekyHughes

And NO ONE wants to say anything about the damage all the steroids or enhancing drugs that these players took? I would also like to really know why NOW??? Why go after the game you played all your live that bought you your house, cars, food, and other luxurious you enjoyed at the time? You wanted to play this game from the day you stepped on the filed as a young one. You cant tell me you didn't know all that all your time playing, when you where 50 years old that it wasn't going to hurt get out of bed. These lawsuits by the players are ridiculous, over 80% of them used some sort of performance enhancing drugs. Is everyone going to sit here an tell my they did not know the risk of those...! BS.....  They new they used they got payed they blew the money now they want to get payed again. 

evileyefleagle
evileyefleagle

Rob Huizenga, a former team physician for the Raiders wrote a book exposing just this sort of stuff.  It's called "You're Okay, It's Just a bruise".

donald5
donald5

I think these lawsuits would get a bit more credibility in the eyes of the public if the plaintiffs declared that all winnings and/or damages would go directly into a trust from which ONLY medical expenses would come from.  

lcaseyk
lcaseyk

I understand what he is saying, but I lack empathy for him.  I am his age and, like him, I was faced with choices in life.  I remember the football players and their culture and one can't say that education was one of their primary goals.  I am sure that this began for him before he ever entered the pros, so the defense that the NFL will offer among many is that he cannot attribute his problems to many the NFL, as he likely began his regimen well before he was drafted.  And how will he establish that he didn't do illegal steroids, which can also cause these problems. 


I hear what he is saying about how this should protect future players as well, but forgive me for being cynical, but aren't they responsible for their choices as well? And also, why aren't the doctors who handed out these medications defendants as well?  Confuse the issue, or just going after the deep pockets?


I am sorry that his life is now a problem, because I enjoyed watching him play on some really good Bears teams.  And I wish him luck with his law suit, but I don't see much likelihood of success other than a settlement. 

Marty2
Marty2

It is time to really evalute whether a sport is worth playing anymore.  The cost/benefit analysis is, for me, starting to weigh in favor on the cost not being worth it.  Football is a violent collision sport - that's what makes it fun to watch.  But just like the Gladiators of old, maybe we'll have to come to the conclusion that it isn't ethical to maintain a sport that leads to so much damage to the human body in the long-term.  AND I HATE SOCCER, so it pains me to say this about the REAL football.

comments
comments

         Thank you for the interview. Van Horne was one of many heroes to me as a child in the 80's in Chicago. That fact alone made this a very disturbing read for me. I'm ashamed to admit that I think I've been somewhat guilty of lacking sensitivity to the thousands of players involved in the concussion lawsuits because they were more meat, numbers, and jersey colors to me than they were people. 

          Its not that I lacked any empathy at all, but more that it seemed like a matter of common sense to me that for anyone at any age and at any time in the course of history, understanding that being knocked unconscious repeatedly was bad for your long term health. Boxing was once a very popular sport in this country and around the world. Everyone saw what happened to Muhammad Ali and it didn't take doctorate in medicine to figure out why his brain deteriorated. 

            The story about Kieth Van Horne being shot up and lied to about a broken leg seems even worse to me, and unfortunately I'm not even the least bit surprised. It seems lately that every time I read about football, whether it be the NFL or NCAA brand, I end up feeling more detached from the game that I grew up loving. I hope the players win this suit, or at least get far enough that it looks like they might get their day in court. That would probably lead to a settlement. I'm thinking I have a problem with supporting either of the major professional football organizations anymore and have pretty much limited my cash contributions to whatever slice of my relatively basic cable fees end up going to the NFL/CAA. Here's wishing Mr. Van Horne and any other players with legitamite complaints the best in this fight.

ianlinross
ianlinross

Buy the ticket, take the ride.

Every college player should find and read Rob Huizenga's book, You're OK, It's Just a Bruise.

Raiderforlife
Raiderforlife

I have trouble with the fact that Doctors not GM's,coaches,trainers where giving out these drugs and not telling them. This is what you are going to see you can play quarterback as along as you want. The outside players 10 years and interior players no more than 6 years. I also see teams making players sign play at your own risk contracts

Joe143
Joe143

@JamesJameson It's true. The NFL is responsible for much more than brain injuries!

Whatever
Whatever

@mdamulligan There's no money from high schools, and the NCAA isn't in the position of participating in any medical care. So any lawsuit would have to be against the individual colleges, which means it likely isn't going to generate the participation of an all-NFL class action lawsuit. 

Plus, people seem to think that colleges are all flush with money from football. While that is true in places like Alabama and Texas, for the vast majority of colleges (even major D1 colleges) football doesn't make money. Basketball makes some, but all other sports lose money, so the athletic department usually runs in the red and most schools.

JoeyMnemonic
JoeyMnemonic

@donald5 I'm inclined to agree with this. It's nice that some money is going to future cases and drug addiction prevention, but it does still look like a money grab by out of work athletes. I think compensation for other damages, such as deterioration of quality of life, has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. You can't say that every heart condition a player has gotten over the last 30 years is the fault of drug misuse by the league. It will be very difficult to demonstrate a concrete cause-effect relationship in court. 


I'll also mention that I don't think it's even possible to sue the NFL for fostering a drug culture. Individual teams are a much easier target, and the correct one, considering they have all the players, coaches, and trainers in the locker rooms to see what's going on. You can argue that coaches knew their players were given drugs and playing with broken bones, but it's extremely difficult to extend blame for what goes on in individual locker rooms all the way to offices at the top. And I don't think you can say that your team drugged you up to make more money for the league. Instead, your team drugged you up in order to win. I think that being choosy about who to attack would have served them better than trying to make a statement.

nyy61
nyy61

@donald5 If the allegations are correct, then his way of life has been impacted well beyond the cost of his medications, and he is entitled to compensation from the NFL and/or the Bears for that.  

patriot1burke
patriot1burke

@Marty2 

You might as well say men can't be men anymore.  This violence is in a lot of us and playing contact sports is what we're designed for as males.


A better solution is to beef up drug testing and also start testing for HGH.  Unfortunately, that will lead to prominent players like Brady, Manning and any active 36+ player retiring and players recovering from injuries slower.  Probably why they aren't testing for it yet.

JohnJpPurnell
JohnJpPurnell

@Raiderforlife Very Good Point.  I wonder if there is a clause in medical doctors contracts that indemnify the league and teams that employ them if they commit medical malpractice.  Doctors are giving these prescriptions and miss leading diagnosis's, albeit, I'm reasonably certain that team personnel are aware, to a certain degree, of this practice.  


I could see this lawsuit end up targeting Doctors and team physicians if the NFL and teams, have some type of indemnity clause against doctors that commit malpractice.  


***Some NFL/Team Interns are beginning the wonderful practice of shredding a lot of documents that implicate the NFL and teams were aware of this practice***

Frank27
Frank27

@patriot1burke @Marty2 he didn't say eliminate contact sports. he said eliminate football. the game is inherently unsafe. you don't have to play football to be a man, and you certainly don't have to play football to let out natural aggression. any sport does that really. you should see the violence I bestow on a golf club after a bad shot!

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