Drug Crazy in the NFL

Few contemporary topics are riddled with more nonsense than the War on Drugs – the nonsense quotient raised even higher when it comes to the anti-doping crusade in sports.   Recent developments point to still higher levels of drug insanity, if reports from and about the National Football League are to be taken seriously.   Within a sports enterprise long reputed to embrace a strict prohibitionism – a “zero-tolerance” policy – the May class-action lawsuit filed by more than 500 ex-NFL players, citing severe bodily and mental harm from the widespread dispensing of harmful medications throughout the league, is jarring.   One of the main spheres of drug warfare today is, paradoxically, site of one of the most well-entrenched drug cultures to be found in American society.  More remarkably, while most NFL teams have for years been awash in painkillers and amphetamines, doled out freely with the aim of giving players maximum competitive edge, harsh punishment is still the fate of those guilty of using marijuana, including year-long 2014 suspensions for Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns and Daryl Washington of the Arizona Cardinals, both caught partaking of a substance less harmful than beer.

Even casual observers have long known that American professional sports, like society as a whole, is saturated with drugs of many types – most of them entirely legal, though often addictive and dangerous.   Doctors in and out of sports routinely write prescriptions for everything from pain to anxiety, depression, insomnia, allergies, weight problems, and sexual dysfunction, while TV stations run thousands of pharmaceutical spots daily, replete with a long list of what the drug industry tepidly calls “side effects”.  (“Adverse reactions” is a more fitting label for debilitating health problems that can result from even moderate drug consumption.)   Americans in general are nowadays the most insatiable drug users in the world, none more popular than alcohol and legal drugs, whether prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC), although this scarcely deters the large corps of anti-drug warriors from its vigilant (but mostly futile) efforts to banish “illicit substances”.

A thriving drug culture in the United States feeds off a longstanding obsession with easy fixes, painless solutions to various social and psychological problems.  We have brilliantly-colored pills that can do wonders to lower cholesterol, improve mood, aid sleep, bolster sexual vitality, or shed weight.  From everyday life to sports competition is not a big leap, especially when pressures attached to money, celebrity, and status – in other words, winning — are so hard to resist.  Of course athletic performance depends on such virtues as physical dexterity, speed, endurance, strength, and mental acuity — perhaps nowhere more than in professional football.  Chemical substances defined as PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) can decisively shape outcomes, permitting great exploits where otherwise they might be unthinkable.   While drug-taking is common to sports of virtually every type, the prohibition myth of zero-tolerance persists as does media and political hysteria over PED “cheating” said to undermine “fair play” and “integrity” in athletic competition.

What is championed as a prohibition agenda is driven in part by the unmovable belief that natural talents will not be rewarded and competitive standards undermined, that athletic results and records will be tainted.  It is true that health concerns occasionally come into the picture.  What seems to motivate anti-drug warriors most, however, is an unwavering conviction that (illegal) drug-taking is somehow “morally wrong”, destructive in its very essence – a conviction no doubt more strongly held within the sports establishment than in the larger society.

“Morally wrong” or not, the NFL has long been a haven for such painkillers as Vicodin, Toradol, Percocet, and Adderall – all readily available and free of charge, giving even badly-injured players the (at least temporary) ability to compete, sometimes at peak levels.   This is the crux of the 87-page lawsuit filed in San Francisco, which charges that “the NFL has intentionally, recklessly, and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profits.”  Not only were pills liberally dispensed, by trainers as well as doctors, but players were rarely warned about potential health risks, which for long-term users can be life-threatening.   Former offensive lineman Jeremy Newberry, who played until 2008, stated that “during games I would often receive multiple injections of painkillers.  After the game, I would take at least two Vicodins and occasionally additional pills.  I would then be given beer by the team.  Of course we would then be given Ambien or some other sleep medication to sleep.”

NFL drug culture has flourished insofar as it allows players to mask injuries and pain endemic to football violence, adverse reactions coming as something of an afterthought.  In fact some teams were reported to have deliberately concealed well-known dangers resulting from long-term use and the familiar practice of pill-combining (“drug cocktails”) that came into fashion during the 1990s.  The majority of plaintiffs encountered severe health disorders associated with heart, liver, kidney, brain, bone, or ligament problems.  Ex-players said that extreme drug consumption was so common, so taken-for-granted, that few gave it a second thought; it was, after all, fully endorsed and legitimated by trusted doctors, trainers, and team officials.   According to Newberry: “It’s almost like a cattle call.  You have 20, 25 guys with their pants down, waiting in line for the doctor who has a hundred syringes lined up.  They are walking through sticking you one at a time as they walk in and out.”

The kinds of drugs administered to players – narcotics, anti-inflammatory medications, anasthetics, sleeping aids – are typically both potent and addictive, as many plaintiffs have testified on the basis of their personal experience.  If a player is not able to perform to the maximum on game day, there could be strong pressure to “medicate” up to that level.  Former wide receiver Roy Green, who retired in 1992, reported that he was given literally thousands of injections during his playing days, mostly to help “play through” injuries.  Green subsequently had three heart attacks and eventually eeded a kidney transplant.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, a hard-line prohibitionist, says he came to recognize this large-scale drug problem only recently, adding that he needs to study the issue in greater detail — seemingly oblivious to a well-documented league history of widespread drug use and abuse.  In fact the NFL, consistent with general societal trends, has long accepted the freewheeling milieu of narcotics consumption, few questions asked.   This is no relic of the distant past, moreover, but persists today in the midst of tepid efforts here and there to “clean up” the sport.  Current defensive back Richard Sherman stated earlier this year that more than half of present-day NFL players use Adderall, a methamphetamine-based pharmaceutical taken to mask pain and stimulate performance – even while a few suspensions have recently been leveled against players testing positive for the drug.

While NFL policy easily coexists with this drug culture, prohibitionism in its deformed state nonetheless remains alive, its most fervent target PEDs and recreational substances.  (Ignored here is the fact that potent, freely-prescribed painkillers and related medications amount to nothing so much as first-rate PEDs.)   NFL moral guardians want to stamp out steroids and testosterone boosters, along with “street drugs” like marijuana, while turning a blind eye to the endless flow of legal products (“medications”) that are generally far more harmful than what is outlawed.  Most pharmaceuticals bring potentially severe negative reactions, extensively identified in the abundant drug literature.  Toradol, for many years among the most popular NFL drugs,  is recommended for use only in very small doses (less than 40 mg), for  no longer than five days.  According to Sidney Wolfe and associates, in Worst Pills, Best Pills, Toradol – a strong anti-inflammatory known as keterolac tromelhamine – can lead to chest pain, coughing up of blood, dizziness, nausea, and skin rashes from just short-term consumption.  Longer-term reactions can include liver or kidney damage, and that is precisely what many lawsuit plaintiffs have claimed.   When mixed with alcohol, tranquilizers, or ACE inhibitors, moreover, the risks posed by Toradol dramatically worsen.  Painkillers like Adderall, Percocet, and Darvocet (a popular oxycodone and acetaminophen mix), are commonly misused and have reportedly contributed to thousands of deaths in the U.S. alone.  Risks far outweigh benefits, note Wolfe and associates, who stress that Adderall – touted as a mental super-charger – should be taken off the market entirely.

Such alarming information is hardly difficult to locate: medical professionals have known – or clearly should have known – about the extreme risks of habit-forming narcotics and amphetamines.  Yet, according to former offensive lineman Kyle Turley, who played on four NFL teams until 2004, “drugs were handed out to us like candy”, adding: “When a team doctor is saying this will take the pain away, you trust him.”    Another plaintiff, former quarterback Jim McMahon, said he took more than 100 Percocet tablets a month, available on demand from the team (Chicago Bears) medical staff.  Some former players report having gone entire seasons with debilitating injuries, even broken bones, while being fed a steady diet of pills to numb the pain.

In an eye-opening article published by Men’s Journal (November 2012), Paul Solotaroff writes that longstanding narcotic and related drug abuse lies at the very core of NFL culture.  According to Solotaroff, more than half of all NFL players have used narcotics during their careers, with possibly 70 percent of that total acquiring some form of dependency.   It is well known that grinding NFL competition could not be sustained without players having access to powerful and enabling drugs.  While pot and cocaine busts get the most sensational media attention, the much greater (legal) drug plague goes largely unnoticed.  In fact the major enforcers – anti-doping bodies, sports establishment, mass media, Congress – pay little attention to drug problems, however serious, associated with the profit-making apparatus of Big Phrama.

Neither the NFL nor kindred sports organizations have shown much interest in the actual health of athletes – at least where it does not directly impact on-field performance.  Steve Silverman, attorney for the lawsuit plaintiffs, comments: “The NFL made billions of dollars as a result of drug use that would be prohibited for horses.”  In this drug-crazy environment, the league’s fanatical opposition to pot, with its absurdly draconian penalties, appears all the more ridiculous and hypocritical.  Why target players for using a substance that has nothing to do with either performance-enhancement or health risks, and is less harmful than alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, or fast foods?  Why indeed does the NFL view marijuana use as a crime worse than domestic violence and drunk driving – when nearly half of adult Americans have reported smoking pot, and when strong national trends favor decriminalization and even legalization?  The answer, of course, is that the sports establishment enjoys an increasingly cozy relationship with Big Pharma, which relies on its sprawling corporate empire, lobbies, and media leverage to help keep the archaic drug war going.

The prohibitionist mentality (a highly selective prohibitionism, to be sure) remains fixated on the question of legality, which has little to do with the real-life consequences of human drug use.  Put differently: if pot is banned while numerous other, far more dangerous, substances are widely permitted and sold for huge profits, then sports drug policy obviously has little relevance to issues of health, performance, or fair play.  In fact the policy works systematically against such concerns: the entire PED discourse is laden with myths, lies, and contradictions.   The NFL, like other sports leagues, constantly pressures athletes to improve body strength, boost endurance, fight off injuries, and recover quickly from health disorders.  Team victories and championships, individual salaries, professional careers, and hallowed legacies depend on such imperatives.  Advantages are inevitably sought through special foodstuffs, nutritional supplements, herbal aids, technical resources, and mixtures of natural and synthetic drugs – some perfectly legal, others arbitrarily deemed “illicit” and outlawed.  With performance-enhancement more integral to sports competition each passing year, the line separating legal and illegal, normal and illicit drugs becomes increasingly blurred.

While anti-doping officials painstakingly monitor athletes, ever alert to the slightest violations of an endless list of procedures, rules and taboos, competitors themselves are driven to maximize physical and mental capabilities well beyond any mythical “natural talents”.   To bolster competitive advantage, individuals and teams resort to every type of “performance enhancer”, including a phalanx of coaches, specialists, trainers, doctors, counselors, nutritional consultants, and public-relations operatives.   In this culture, the practice among NFL teams of routinely dispensing legal drugs to elevate on-field capabilities should come as no surprise.  The struggle for athletic edge has few limits, nowhere more so than in the hyper-combative milieu of football.

Hundreds of products are currently marketed across the media to improve muscle strength, body mass, reaction time, speed, coordination, and mental alertness.  One widely-cited article by Bill Campbell and associates, in Strength and Conditioning Journal (February 2010), identifies four popular consumer items used as effective PEDs: creatine, beta-alanine, HMB (b-hydroxy-methyl butyrate), and protein supplements.  Such revitalizing health products boost the anaerobic capacity of athletes, while also improving “body composition, muscular strength, muscular power, and exercise performance.”  Protein supplements alone help build “lean muscle mass”, elevate overall physical strength, and “repair damaged cells and tissues that result from intensive training.”

Campbell and co-authors add that “creatine is currently the gold standard against which other nutritional sports supplements for strength and power are compared.”  According to the International Society for Sports and Nutrition, creatine monohydrate is the most powerful supplement athletes can take for high-intensive exercise capacity and lean body mass during training and competition.  Creatine supplements are a favorite of football players, body-builders, wrestlers, and track athletes.  The boost in strength is advertised to be roughly three times more effective than that of a high-protein diet alone.  This product – a PED by any name — brings more than $500 million yearly in profits to such companies as Beart Sports Nutrition, marketed under the label “Creatine Capsules”, “Creatine Micronized”, and many others.

Few mainstream observers of the American sports scene are ready to concede that performance enhancers might include assorted vitamin and nutritional supplements, herbal compounds, “natural” testosterone boosters, pharmaceutical combining, substances like coenzyme Q-10, even caffeine-based products that challenges limits set by anti-doping agencies.  The BodyBuilding.com foundation sells a wide assortment of “supplemental stacks” like “Platinum Anabolic” and “Build Muscle” – heavily advertised to boost training, performance, and endurance.  The same company manufactures pre-workout products like “MusclePharmAssault”, a reputed source of “superhuman endurance and training intensity”, celebrated in dozens of men’s, sports, and fitness magazines. The highly-discriminating prohibitionists seem unable to consider that common foodstuffs, vitamins, minerals, and herbs – often combined with legally-prescribed or OTC drugs – can easily rival and even surpass the potency of most banned PEDs.  In reality outlawed substances, including steroids and HGH (human-growth hormones), can be far less beneficial than legal enhancers given the frequently severe adverse effects of the former.

While the media dwells on the spectacle of star athletes caught doping or “juicing” – or being arrested on pot or cocaine charges — a far more insidious reality lurks: the coercive workings of a system that destroys reputations, careers, and lives of sports figures targeted as violators of outdated drug-war taboos.  Anti-doping mania makes no more sense for sports than for society as a whole.  Here the NFL suit does much to uncover the bankruptcy of institutional drug policies with searing clarity.  Fairness?  Integrity?  Equal playing field?    Those values are rare within American professional sports, dominated as it is by corporate interests, lucrative media markets, aggressive lobbies, and wide disparity of resources giving just a few elite teams crucial advantages.

Drug prohibition in sports, hypocritical at its core, is fatally compromised by the inability of gatekeepers to distinguish between purportedly “bad” (illegal) and “good” (prescribed, OTC, nutritional) substances according to any rational criteria.  Nor is there much consistency or specificity about what exactly constitutes a PED.  The NFL lawsuit has done a great service in bringing these and related issues into public awareness.   Sadly, stubborn anti-doping ideology has done more harm than good – not least for the integrity of athletic competition that the enforcers pretend to cherish.   An outgrowth of the larger (and catastrophic) drug war, the ideology continues to be driven by a matrix of fears, anxieties, and hatreds.   With cultural barricades stealthily defended by leading sports, corporate, media, and conservative interests, anti-doping agendas serve no coherent purpose – surely nothing close to their grandiose claims – aside from enriching the coffers of Big Pharma.

CARL BOGGS is professor of social sciences and film studies at National University in Los Angeles.  His latest book is Drugs, Power, and Politics: Narco Wars, Big Pharma, and the Subversion of Democracy (forthcoming).  His writing career began as a sports writer for the Daily Cal at U.C., Berkeley.   

CARL BOGGS is the author of several recent books, including Fascism Old and New (2018), Origins of the Warfare State (2016), and Drugs, Power, and Politics (2015).  He can be reached at ceboggs@nu.edu.