Wednesday, August 11, 2010
NFL and NFLPA need to take closer look at possible painkiller abuse
August 11, 2010
By Michael McCann
Monday, August 9, was a noteworthy day in the NFL and it had nothing to do with labor negotiations, Hall of Fame speech omissions or will-he-or won't-he speculation. Well, actually it had something to do with Brett Favre, but not in the way one would first imagine.
To fully understand the gravity of the date, it helps to go back to 1996, when the following chilling tale appeared in the pages of SI:
Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre can pinpoint when, where and why he got scared straight. It happened on Feb. 27 in room 208 of Bellin Hospital in Green Bay, where he had just undergone surgery to remove one bone spur and several bone chips from his left ankle. One minute Favre, the NFL's MVP last season, was talking to his girlfriend, Deanna Tynes, their 7-year-old daughter, Brittany, and a nurse. The next thing he knew, there were tubes and IVs coming out of him everywhere.
He doesn't remember the 20 minutes in between, during which his limbs thrashed, his head banged backward uncontrollably, and he gnashed his teeth. During those minutes his body told him in a loud wake-up call to stop popping painkillers as if they were Lifesavers. He never heard Tynes scream to the nurse, "Get his tongue! Don't let him swallow his tongue!" He never heard a terrified Brittany ask, as she was being whisked from the room, "Is he going to die, Mom?"
After the seizure had ended and he had come to his senses, Favre looked into a sea of concerned medical faces and saw Packers associate team physician John Gray. "You've just suffered a seizure, Brett," Gray told him. "People can die from those." Favre's heart sank. Upon hearing from doctors in the room that his dependence on painkillers might have contributed to the seizure, he thought, "I've got to stop the pills, I've just got to."
Last season, Favre went on such a wild ride with the prescription drug Vicodin, a narcotic-analgesic painkiller, that Tynes feared for his life. He scavenged pills from teammates. At least once he took 13 tablets in a night. ,... "The only reason I ever did this was because I had to," he said. "Had to. I had to play. Injuries have cost a lot of guys their jobs in this league, and there was no way an injury was ever going to cost me my job. Then it just got out of hand."
Favre, of course, went on to play 14 more seasons in the NFL, and whether he'll return for his 20th is largely dependent on how well his left ankle recovers from surgery performed two months ago. Whether he comes back or doesn't, it's worth pointing out that Aug. 9 was the last day hundreds of NFL players could be tested for painkillers and other possible substances of abuse until early next April. So if a player who's trying to make a team suddenly decides he needs to resort to extreme measures to stay on the field, he does so now with the knowledge that there's less chance of getting caught.
To be sure, there are exceptions. Players who have tested positive recently or are otherwise deemed to have abused a substance of abuse, such as a prescription drug without a prescription, are subject to additional testing beyond Aug. 9. Take Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly, who has been suspended for the entire 2010 season for violating the league's substance abuse policy. His substance of abuse? Codeine, an opioid that relieves pain and increases tolerance to it. It's also a Schedule II controlled substance that is illegal without a prescription.
Until Jolly struck a plea deal with prosecutors on Aug. 3, the legal system threatened him with a far more serious penalty: up to 20 years in prison for illegally possessing the painkiller, which was discovered during his arrest outside a Houston nightclub in 2008. If he's ever reinstated, he'll be subject to testing. But for the vast majority of players, unless there is reasonable cause, the collective bargaining agreement mandates no testing for the likes of cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, opiates (morphine and codeine) and phencyclidine (PCP) until April. Over-the-counter pain medicines, such as Tylenol or Aleve, are not tested, nor are prescription pain medicines such as Vicodin, Demerol, Percocet or OxyContin. By contrast, testing for steroids and illegal performance enhancers occurs throughout the year.
Other leagues and their respective players' associations have adopted different and, in some cases, stricter policies.
• In the NBA, all players are subject to four random tests each season (from Oct. 1 to June 30) and any prohibited substance is fair game.
• The NHL and NHLPA have bargained a similar arrangement, with every player subjected to as many as three tests from the start of training camp through the end of the regular season. NHL players are tested for steroids, illegal performance enhancers, narcotics and many other items, as the NHL and NHLPA have adopted the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of prohibited drugs (which does not include opiates).
• Major League Baseball players, who are tested for steroids during the season, are not tested for many substances of abuse -- for example, cocaine, opiates and marijuana -- unless there is "reasonable cause."
Given that NFL players are tested for substances of abuse only during the offseason and for steroids throughout the year, while the other two "physical" pro leagues -- the NBA and NHL -- test for substances of abuse throughout their seasons, a cynic might infer that the NFL and NFLPA are more worried about players using steroids to get bigger and stronger than those same players using illegal drugs for treating pain or getting high.
Both organizations sharply disagree. An NFLPA spokesperson said the union takes the issue seriously and is trying to determine what it takes for players to get through each week in terms of pain. Meanwhile, an NFL spokesman said, "Our current procedures are as broad as the union has thus far allowed us to go. We are always seeking ways to improve our program. We recognize that in our society the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a problem. We test for it under the NFL's program, using the latest science and current understanding of the issue, and we closely monitor the trends. We do not see evidence of a particular problem among NFL players, but we do address it through testing, intervention and discipline."
Lending support to the NFL's argument is agent and attorney Neil Cornrich, whose clients include New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Aaron Kampman. While noting that painkiller abuse is a serious issue for the league and the players association, Cornrich recommends that it be viewed in the broader context of the United States: "If there is an increase in abuse among NFL players in using painkillers, it likely mirrors a general increase of what is happening in society and is not unique to the NFL," he said. "The unfortunate reality is that prescription painkillers are readily available over the Internet and across borders."
Cornrich's remarks are backed up by data: In July, the U.S. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration released a study showing "a dramatic rise" in painkiller abuse from 1998 to 2008 "among nearly all segments of the population, regardless of age, gender, educational level and employment status."
Relief of pain, of course, is an understandable desire for any NFL player, just as it is for any person. To expect NFL players to completely refrain from pain relief would be unreasonable and counterproductive.