A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by 1,300 former players against the NFL, writing that the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union was the appropriate forum to resolve claims that teams damaged the players' by routinely dispensing painkillers.
"In ruling against the novel claims asserted herein, this order does not minimize the underlying societal issue," Judge William Alsup of the U.S. Northern District in California wrote Wednesday. "In such a rough-and-tumble sport as professional football, player injuries loom as a serious and inevitable evil. Proper care of these injuries is likewise a paramount need."
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Last month, Alsup asked the NFL Players' Association to state its position on the lawsuit. The union responded that the collective bargaining agreement did not provide a mechanism to file grievances over the handling of painkillers on behalf of former players.
Alsup ruled the other way, agreeing with the NFL's argument that the lawsuit was pre-empted by the collective bargaining agreement. He wrote that no court has ruled that a pro league must police its independent clubs on health and safety issues.
"We were surprised and disappointed by this judge's ruling and plan to file an amended complaint or appeal," said plaintiffs' attorney Steve Silverman. "Our clients were courageous for bringing this case, proud of the changes they've already made for current and future players, we will continue to avail ourselves of the judicial process to further those goals."
The lawsuit alleges the NFL and its teams, physicians and trainers acted without regard for players' health, withholding information about injuries. At the same time, they were handing out prescription painkillers and anti-inflammatories to mask pain and minimize lost playing time. Among other claims, the players contend prescriptions were filled out in their names without their knowledge.
Alsup wrote that "the league has addressed these serious concerns in a serious way — by imposing duties on the clubs via collective bargaining and placing a long line of health-and-safety duties on the team owners themselves. These benefits may not have been perfect, but they have been uniform across all clubs and not left to the vagaries of state common law. They are backed up by the enforcement power of the union itself and the players' right to enforce these benefits."
Nine players were named as plaintiffs, including Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent. The judge gave them until Dec. 30 to file an amended complaint.
"I hope we appeal, or else have all 1,300 or so of us go to the NFLPA and ask them to file grievances," said Jeremy Newberry, who played for San Francisco, retired in 2009 and is now a sports agent. "We need to clean up the game going forward, so more guys don't suffer kidney failure in their 30s and die young because of the stuff the teams distributed so freely. That's why the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) started investigating. That was the whole point of participating in the lawsuit. ...
"Now, as an agent, I go into kids' living rooms and tell their parents, 'We'll look after your son," he said. "It's going to be harder now to do that with a clear conscience."
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents conducted spot checks last month of at least five NFL visiting teams' medical staffs as part of an ongoing investigation. The probe was sparked by claims in the lawsuit from former players, including dozens who said the teams' lax controls over dispensing painkillers continued until 2012.
Any violations of the Controlled Substances Act after 2009 could be used in a criminal investigation.
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