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Suit Filed by UB Law Alumnus and Professor Sparks Raids of NFL Medical Operations


A federal lawsuit filed by University of Baltimore School of Law alumnus Steven Silverman, J.D. ’91, and Professor Phillip Closius spurred what ESPN called "unprecedented" surprise inspections of NFL teams on Sunday, Nov. 16.

Squads of DEA agents descended on the San Francisco 49ers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks after the teams' road games Sunday. The inspections targeted the teams' medical and training staffs and sought to determine whether they had violated federal laws governing the distribution and handling of prescription painkillers, news reports said.

The suit, originally filed May 20 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on behalf of more than 750 former NFL players, alleges that the National Football League "intentionally, recklessly, and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, putting profit in place of players' health."

The NFL previously has denied the charges.

However, ESPN reported that a federal law enforcement source with knowledge of the inspections said the Drug Enforcement Administration has reason to believe federal drug laws are frequently violated, especially by visiting teams.

"I think it's great that the DEA is taking this seriously," Closius told ESPN on Sunday. "We alleged back on May 20 that the NFL was issuing these controlled substances and prescription medicines in an illegal manner, and nobody has really disputed the factual basis of that claim."

Closius said team doctors are under pressure by the NFL to keep injured players in the game.

"If doctors don't get players back on that field, you think they're going to continue to be the team doctor?" he told ESPN.

Continued Closius: "Everybody is subservient to this return-to-play culture—doctors, general managers, coaches, everybody. And that return-to-play culture is responsible for this illegal distribution of drugs."

Closius and Silverman appeared on NBC's TODAY show on June 18 with former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who said he and other NFL players were misled by the league about the painkillers he said were used to keep them playing despite injuries.

"I was involved in a lot of these allegations," McMahon said in the TODAY interview. Then he added: "Well, they're not allegations. They actually happened."

The NFL issued a comment to the TODAY show: "We are very confident that the professionalism and commitment of our team medical staffs, combined with the protection of an experienced labor union ensures that NFL players receive timely, expert and appropriate care."

Asked what he thought of the statement, McMahon said: "I think it's a bunch of B.S. We didn't get timely and appropriate care back then." 

McMahon retired 17 years ago.

Closius and Silverman previously appeared on the TODAY show on May 22 with two former NFL players, Ron Pritchard and J.D. Hill, who are also plaintiffs in the suit.

In a May 22 segment on MSNBC, Silverman said that NFL players enter the league trusting their doctors to do what’s best for their health. Continued Silverman: "[B]ut if the doctor’s loyalty is to the league and lets a guy go out on the field who should either have surgery or be on bed rest, and instead pumps them with full-body narcotics and painkillers and he goes out and severely injures a body part that’s already injured and has permanent injury for the rest of his life, that’s a serious problem.”

On ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning on May 22, Silverman noted that the class action is directed toward the NFL rather than at individual teams. In preparing the case, he said, he and Closius interviewed close to 700 former players. "We’ve reviewed hundreds of former players’ medical records and what you have is … a systemic problem going through the entire league,” Silverman said. “It’s not just one rogue team or one rogue trainer; it’s all throughout the league.”