A group of NFL players field a lawsuit Tuesday charging that NFL team doctors and trainers gave out narcotics and painkillers like “candy at Halloween” during their playing careers, leading to addiction and serious long-term health problems.
This is the path that Walt Sweeney walked down nearly 20 years ago. It didn’t end well for him.
Jim McMahon, Richard Dent and Keith Van Horne, all members of the 1985 Chicago Bears, were among eight plaintiffs names so far in the lawsuit, charging that they’ve suffered nerve and organ damage from drugs team doctors and trainers gave them to get them to play, without ever informing them of the risks.
Six of the players in the lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco were also parties to the concussion-related class-action lawsuit less than a year ago. The NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle that case — without acknowledging it concealed the risks of concussions from former players. A federal judge who hasn’t suffered brain damage from playing football refused to approve the settlement, suggesting the amount was too small.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Steven Silverman said the difference between this lawsuit about the dispensing of addictive and illegal drugs and the concussions lawsuit is intent.
“The concussion case claimed the NFL knew or should have known,” Silverman told the Associated Press. “We’re saying this was intentional, putting profits ahead of players’ health — and in violation of federal controlled substance laws, as well as state laws. You don’t order hundreds of narcotic painkillers in their names without telling them.”
The lawsuit covers the years 1968 to 2008.
Walt Sweeney was an offensive lineman who played from 1963 with the San Diego Chargers in the old American Football League to 1976 with the Washington Redskins. He died a year before this suit was filed, but had fought the same battle against the NFL in 1995.
I spoke to him before the 1997 Super Bowl, when Sweeney had believed he had won this very same battle against the NFL. He told me his career began with popping amphetamines distributed by team trainers before his first exhibition game for the San Diego Chargers.
It ended 13 years later when, in a state of paranoia, he pumped six rounds into his bed at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, during Redskins training camp.
By the time Sweeney’s decorated career — he was a nine-time Pro Bowl guard — ended, what he had to show for it was an addiction that would haunt him long after he couldn’t function any more as a football player.
“It destroyed my life,” said Sweeney, whose list of damage included two failed marriages, seven drunk-driving arrests, numerous jobs, suicide attempts and 23 hospital stays for drug and alcohol abuse.
“The first exhibition game in San Diego, I noticed these guys were pulling a jar out of the trainer’s pocket,” Sweeney said. “It turned out to be amphetamines. I took 20 5-milligram Dexedrines. Other guys were taking four or five. I wasn’t familiar with them.
“I would take some and wait for something to happen and it didn’t, so I would take some more. I was on special teams, and had a great game, but after the game I felt like my heart was going to burst through my chest. The trainers were aware of what happened, and they came by and checked on me several hours after the game at my house. That’s how it started. The next week I took four or five, and for the next 13 years I took amphetamines before every game.”