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You Know Me, I’m Your Friend: DEA Raids and the NFL’s Painkiller Crisis

Last week, the Drug Enforcement Administration questioned the medical staffs of several NFL teams. This time, they weren’t looking for steroids, or human growth hormone, or Bertie Bott’s Magic Muscle Beans. They were looking for painkillers.

My favorite sporting event of all time is the 1904 Olympic marathon, which took place in St. Louis. It was the very strangest part of the very strangest Olympics ever held. A gymnast with a wooden leg won three gold medals. The Games were held in connection with the World’s Fair that gave us the startlingly racist Anthropology Days, in which members of what was then termed “primitive cultures” who had been brought to Missouri as living exhibits competed in events. It was so weird and repellent that Pierre de Coubertin, a man of no mean quirks himself, gave up on the spectacle and went home in disgust. The marathon was all of this preposterous ballyhoo poured into a single competition.

This was the race for which a Cuban mailman named Félix Carvajal showed up at the starting line wearing long pants, having hitchhiked from New Orleans because he’d lost his passage money gambling there. This was the race in which a pack of wild dogs nearly mauled one of the runners, and in which several of the participants nearly died from choking on the dust kicked up by the automobiles with which they curiously had to share the road. And, yes, this was the race in which a talented runner named Fred Lorz grabbed a lift from one of those cars and rode the last 11 miles of the course, waving gaily to the crowd, and ran into the stadium, apparently finishing first and nearly being given the gold medal by Alice Roosevelt, T.R.’s 20-year-old daughter. (People caught on and Lorz was booed off the podium.) Meanwhile, Thomas Hicks, who had run the whole course, actually was the first runner to arrive. This was all the more remarkable since his coaches apparently were trying to poison him.

History tells us that for several miles, Hicks’s trainers had been ignoring his pleas for water and, instead, were dosing him with a mixture of egg whites and strychnine, which was said to boost a runner’s energy. Sometimes the coaches added a stiff shot of brandy. Staggering, and openly hallucinating, Hicks was carried over the finish line to win the Olympic marathon. It was a triumph of the human spirit and, it must be said, a great victory for the performance-enhancing drugs of the time.

I mention this simply to point out, again, that the concept of drug-free sports is, and always has been, a completely ludicrous fantasy. And I mention this in the context of what happened last week, when the Drug Enforcement Administration questioned the medical staffs of several National Football League teams. This time, they weren’t looking for steroids, or human growth hormone, or Bertie Bott’s Magic Muscle Beans. They were looking for painkillers. Specifically, they were looking to see if the teams were handing out controlled substances the way people used to hand out Jujubes at the Saturday matinee. The investigation was ignited by the huge class-action suit brought by more than 1,300 ex-players in which they contend that the teams for which they played repeatedly doped them up with everything from powerful opioids to sleeping pills in order to have them play through injuries that by all rights should have kept them off the field.

This is some serious business. The country’s drug police were slow off the mark on PEDs, allowing an unregulated market to thrive for years before finally cracking after a media-fueled national frenzy. But prescription drugs, and particularly prescription painkillers, are a whole different kettle of oxycontin. The DEA has been chasing Percodan and Percocet for years. Somebody, in short, could be in a whole lot of trouble.

There is no fig leaf to hide behind. If the accusations in the players’ lawsuit are true, then team doctors and trainers are simply drug pushers, playing their customers for suckers and doing so for profit. And they don’t even have the entrepreneurial élan of your average street dealer. They took no risk. They did what the large corporations for which they worked wanted them to do. At best, they were the moral equivalents of the tobacco scientists who produced the reports their bosses wanted them to produce. At worst, they were no more conscientious about the athletes in their care than were those East German physicians who kept young swimmers in the dark about exactly what was being pumped into their bodies.

To treat the allegations the DEA is apparently acting on as yet another NFL public relations catastrophe in a year full of them is to miss a considerable point. If the charges from the players are borne out, then this is a drug story that not only is aimed at the dubious medical practices that have allowed the NFL to put on a full slate of games every week, but is also, and with considerable irony, one that undermines the whole hysteria over drugs that make performance better.

I’ve always thought the PED “crisis” of the past decade was little more than yet another American drug frenzy, this one taking place wholly within the business of sports. But my feelings on the issue always have been bounded by the idea of informed consent. The athlete should be fully informed of what he or she is taking and what it can do, both positively and negatively. No team’s medical staff — and certainly no practicing physician — should agree to hand out drugs without making clear to the athlete everything they should know about what they are ingesting. The information should be comprehensive and it should be honest. After that, it should be between the player, his or her body, and the medical staff tasked with keeping both as healthy as possible.

It’s helpful to remember, as I’ve written about in the past, the tale of the two hamstrings from the autumn of 1988. On September 24, Ben Johnson of Canada took a shot of a steroid at least partly to overcome a hamstring injury, which he overcame so well that he won a gold medal. He subsequently became a worldwide disgrace. Two weeks later, in the first game of that year’s World Series, Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers took a different kind of steroid at least partly to overcome a hamstring injury, which he did so well that he hit a home run to win the game. He subsequently was credited with the most memorable sports moment in the history of Los Angeles. The fact that one form of steroid ended an athlete’s public career and another form of steroid bestowed upon another athlete a kind of immortality ought to have been a permanent caution to anyone covering the issue of drugs in sports.

Nothing ever made sense. Both of those performances were, by any reasonable definition, enhanced by the use of a steroid. They were made better by the use of a steroid. (It can be argued, and should be, that both of those performances were made possible by the use of a steroid.) What we decided was that one steroid was evil and the other was morally neutral, even though the actual effects were exactly the same. Only the reaction was different. The infamy descended on only one of the athletes. The other one is cited every fall when a World Series game is tied in the late innings.

In truth, there is no real distinction to be drawn between the experiences of Ben Johnson and Kirk Gibson and Thomas Hicks with the drugs they were given to enhance their performances. The only differences were how those events were presented to the public, and how the public ginned itself up in response. The athletes themselves get lost in the shuffle. They become symbols, and moral burlesques for the public’s entertainment, and vehicles for moral posturing and, ultimately, representations of phony good and counterfeit evil. Ben Johnson is evil and Kirk Gibson is good. Therefore, what Johnson did is immoral but what Gibson did is glorious, even though they are entirely the same act, and they differ only because of an artificial paradigm by which the different steroids they took are judged. What is being alleged in this latest investigation is wholly different. We no longer are talking about healing, even in the sense of using a steroid to get over an injury, but about taking a drug to ignore the injury, to mask symptoms, and to deaden the body’s most essential warning system — pain — so as to allow an athlete to endanger himself further. (And this is not even to mention that the drugs in question are powerfully addictive.) That is how the allegations in this lawsuit differ from the manufactured hysteria over PEDs, and why that hysteria may have blinded us to the dangers in what many NFL teams are said to have been doing with painkillers. And the basic point, which is that human beings virtually never have competed at the higher levels of athletic competition without some sort of artificial assistance, is completely lost in moral performance pieces that blind us to the fact that some drugs are different than others, and that the informed consent of the athlete is the primary responsibility of everyone who is supposed to look out for the athlete’s well-being. Even Thomas Hicks knew what he was taking.  We’re not dosing people with strychnine anymore. From that perspective, at least, things are looking up.