In 1973, the NFL fined the team $25,000 for its role in dispensing drugs in a scandal that revealed its practices. Eight players — including Sweeney — were also fined and then traded, with Sweeney coming to the Redskins.
Sweeney told me the Redskins treated him well during his time with the team but that he continued to use drugs.
“I tore my knee up in the last game of the 1975 season,” he said. “I was supposed to get operated on immediately after the game, but I had so much speed [amphetamines] in me they couldn’t operate on me for three days.”
The next year he reported to Redskins training camp in Carlisle, but he was through, and he realized that, and one night his frustration and a drug-induced paranoia resulted in a frightening incident in his room, when he took a gun and fired six shots into his bed.
“That severed all ties with football right there,” Sweeney said. “The next day [coach] George Allen told me they were going to pay me and that I could leave.” Sweeney said struggled to live a normal life after that.
When I spoke to Sweeney, he had just won a battle in federal court against the NFL when Judge Rudi Brewster ruled that the NFL had turned Sweeney into an addict during his playing days and that his addiction is every bit as legitimate as any physical disability, and owed Sweeney $1.8 million in disability benefits.
Brewster’s decision reaffirmed a similar one he made in 1995, when he criticized the NFL for its duplicity in drug use during Sweeney’s playing days, charging that the league’s practice of giving drugs to players to maximize performance and limit pain “caught a player who may be unusually susceptible to chemical dependency.”
“When it creates a tragedy such as that shown by substantial evidence in this case, the Retirement Board may not turn its back on a player who is injured by the practice,” Brewster wrote.
Sweeney, though, would lose the case on another appeal.
Now that same battle is being fought by a group of players, but the playing field and the narrative has changed since Walt Sweeney fought this fight. The perception of the NFL as a pusher — given what we have learned from the concussion lawsuits — seems plausible, and maybe even winnable.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com