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LOVERRO: Fight against NFL’s pill-pushing culture has been waged before

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

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."

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

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