Concerns over how injured NFL players are treated continues to be an issue for the National Football League, especially now that a leading medical ethicist has asked the question: “are physicians looking out for the health of the players, or are they just trying to keep them on the field?” The question was asked amid allegations that NFL doctors often engage in “questionable, and possibly illegal, use of prescription drugs to manage player pain.”
The medical ethicist’s question isn’t new, though. On the contrary, it’s been asked often in recent years in “connection with the league’s lagging response to concussions and other injuries suffered by players.” The fact that questions like this are still being asked only speaks volumes on the league’s unwillingness to confront the obvious problem with how NFL players are being treated once injured. What exactly is the problem? Well, many claim NFL teams have a heavy dependence on prescription painkillers, and instead of letting injured players get the proper rest, they’re merely being given high quantities of painkillers before being approved to return to the game by NFL doctors.
In fact, the painkiller problem is so big that a federal lawsuit was filed against many NFL teams by former players. The lawsuit “painted a disturbing picture of the use of powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories,” and “included descriptions of teams violating federal prescription drug laws, disregarding guidance about controlled substances from the Drug Enforcement Administration and giving medication to players without telling them what they were getting.”
In response, the NFL dismissed the allegations as meritless. In a statement, they claimed that “NFL teams and their medical staffs continue to put the health and safety of our players first, providing all NFL players with the highest quality medical care. Any claim or suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong.” However, if this is true, why did only “47 of 100 players who were surveyed by the Associated Press” admit they felt that the “league’s clubs, coaches and team doctors have the athletes’ best interests at heart?”
A two-year player health study was also conducted by Harvard University researchers that found “an undeniable conflict of interest in the league’s current system.” According to the study, “the intersection of club doctors’ dual obligations creates significant legal and ethical quandaries that can threaten player health.” The report also noted that “players and teams have a shared interest in health, but there are areas when those interests diverge, such as when a player wants to return to play from an injury more quickly than recommended in order to avoid termination of his contract.” As a result of the study, the Harvard report issued the following recommendations:
There should be a separation between “medical teams that provide care for players from staff who evaluate players for business purposes, and banning doctors who treat players from reporting to team management or coaches.”
So far the NFL has admitted and accepted the “value of independent medical judgment,” and now have “unaffiliated neurotrauma specialists stationed at all games to approve the return of any player who has suffered a concussion.” However, the recent allegations of painkiller abuse reveal a need for the league to consider further changes and reforms to how it treats injured players.