Former Steeler: 'I had to take so many drugs. I knew it wasn’t healthy.'
March 11, 2017 12:00 AM
Former Steelers center Jeff Hartings said he retired from the NFL because of his use of painkillers.
Former Steelers center Jeff Hartings said he retired from the NFL because of his use of painkillers.
Steelers team doctor Anthony Yates attends to center Maurkice Pouncey during a 2010 game in Cincinnati. Dr. Yates gave a deposition quoted heavily in a Washington Post story about NFL teams' misuse of prescription painkillers.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Former Steelers center Jeff Hartings started using painkillers early in his football career, a practice that only increased over the course of his 11-year, 162-game career. By the time he was 33 and playing his final season with the Steelers, he was taking pain-killing shots on a weekly basis, just to stay on the field.
“It was the direct reason I retired,” said Mr. Hartings, 44. “I had to take so many drugs. I knew it wasn’t healthy.”
Though Mr. Hartings is not one of the 1,800 players suing the league’s 32 teams, at least four former Steelers were named in court documents later published in full by Deadspin: Glen Edwards, who played for the Steelers from 1971-78; Marvin Kellum (1974-76); Troy Sadowski (1997); and Jeffrey Graham (1991-93).
The Post story said the lawsuit alleges NFL teams “violated federal laws governing prescription drugs, disregarding guidance from the Drug Enforcement Administration on how to store, track, transport and distribute controlled substances, and plied their players with powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories.”
Steelers team physician Dr. Anthony Yates is named throughout the documents, portrayed as both a voice for reform in the league’s prescription drug policies and as the head of a Steelers medical program that dispensed painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs well above the league average.
Dr. Yates has been a Steelers team physician for more than 30 years, including Mr. Hartings’ six-year tenure with the team. But Mr. Hartings’ use of painkillers was an issue long before he signed with the team in 2001.
“It was definitely overused and abused when I played, even going back to my days at Penn State. That was the first time I was exposed to it,” said Mr. Hartings, who played his first five NFL seasons with the Detroit Lions. “By the time I got to the NFL, it was completely abused, but in a way it was all completely necessary to be able to go out there and play.”
Asked for a response, Penn State’s athletics department emailed this statement Friday night: “We were unaware of this, so we cannot comment on Jeff Hartings' statement. Penn State’s No. 1 priority is the health and welfare of our student-athletes, which includes providing them with the best medical care possible. We are sensitive to the appropriate use of all medication.”
Among the drugs listed in the lawsuit that teams supplied to players was Toradol, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug popular among players for its ability to deaden pain before games.
“You find out you can get a T-shot (Toradol) and it’ll take your pain away on game day,” Mr. Hartings said. “It definitely takes the pain away for that three, four or five hours on game day, but you pay for it the next day. And the pain is four to five times worse.
“From my own experience, the headaches and the issues I had on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays had to do with taking so many painkillers on game day. You have such a letdown in the following days because you’re on these drugs. Your body feels like it’s crawling in its own skin. You were coming down because you were so drugged up on game days.”
Dr. Yates was especially vocal about teams’ use of Toradol, according to the court documents. The doctor helped spearhead a league-funded task force in 2012 to study the use of Toradol. But as recently as 2015, Dr. Yates testified during depositions, he witnessed players lining up for the “T-Train” — injections of Toradol before games — something that had been occurring with the Steelers for at least the previous 15 years.
Dr. Yates also testified that a majority of NFL teams as of 2010 violated federal laws and regulations by allowing trainers to control and handle prescription medication.
In a 2010 email exchange with Dr. Elliot Pellman, formerly the league’s medical director, and other team doctors, Dr. Yates seemed concerned about the dispensing of controlled substances in regard to investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“As I’ve said before: To date, there has not been a constructive solution provide (sic) by the home NFL office other than to meet and greet with the DEA and the subsequent legal conference calls,” Dr. Yates wrote in the email. “The information to date to the Society is one of ‘Good Luck’ and you are on your own to decide how to adhere to ‘the law’!!! We are where we are because of our association with the NFL.”
Yet in 2012, Dr. Yates and others associated with the team prescribed their players 7,442 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs while the league average was 5,777, according to a March 2013 internal document from Lawrence Brown, the NFL-employed medical adviser who oversees its drug issues. They ranked 10th in the league in dispensing NSAIDs. The Steelers also distributed 2,123 doses of other controlled substances. They ranked 14th in dispensing those drugs.
A Steelers spokesman said team president Art Rooney II would not comment on the lawsuit or any issues related to it.
The NFL Players Association released the following statement: “The NFLPA is alarmed by the revelations in the lawsuit filed by former NFL players on the abuse of prescription drugs. While we are not a party to the case, the reporting by the Washington Post and Deadspin are cause for our continued concern and vigilance for holding the League accountable to its obligations. We will monitor this case closely and take all steps necessary to ensure the health and safety of our players.”
Mr. Hartings said care from NFL doctors improved throughout his career. Players began to be warned by physicians and trainers about the effects of painkillers and proper dosages of the drugs they ingested. But Mr. Hartings and others kept taking them because they needed them to play at a high level.
Dave Pear, a defensive lineman who played with the Baltimore Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders from 1975-1980, is not involved in the case, but he, like Mr. Hartings, also described rampant drug use and questionable care from doctors during his career.
“The only thing that mattered was getting back onto the field,” Mr. Pear said. “The team didn’t care about you personally. The final two years of my career I played with a herniated disc in my neck. I shouldn’t have been playing. I was lucky I wasn’t paralyzed.
“I just remember all the pain pills the Raiders tried to shove at me,” he said, relating an incident that occurred while he was hospitalized for a neck injury. He said a team doctor “visited me in the hospital and tried to give me what had to be 30 Percocets.
“He pulled them out of his shirt pocket and they fell all over the floor. Here he was, an NFL doctor, on his hands and knees picking these pills up from the ground. But that’s the way it was back then.”
Mr. Pear said there was a drawer in the Raiders training room filled with any kind of pill players needed. Players were free to take as many as they liked.
The Raiders cut Mr. Pear in 1981, months after a Super Bowl victory over Philadelphia. Mr. Pear said he approached Raiders owner Al Davis that summer about the team paying for his neck surgery.
“The really sad part is when they got rid of you in the 1970s it was usually because you were injured, and you had no recourse,” Mr. Pear said. “There was no medical (insurance), no severance pay. You had nothing. I said to Al, ‘I broke my neck playing for you. Some of those diamonds on your ring are because of me. You have to help me.’ He told me he’d give me a call. I never heard from him again.”
David Gortler said most physicians get one semester of instruction in pharmaceuticals. They can prescribe drugs but may lack full understanding of the potential health consequences of some of them. He is a senior adviser with FormerFDA.com, a consultancy made up of former Food and Drug Administration officials and has a doctoral degree in pharmacy and Ph.D. in pharmacology,
Medications are only intended to take the edge off pain, not eliminate it, and were never intended to mask the pain of a serious injury, he said.
“Most physicians in sports medicine are hardly experts in this area,” Mr. Gortler said. “They are not pharmacologists. There are good reasons why there are pharmacists and pharmacologists out there.”
Ralph Cindrich played linebacker in the NFL from 1972-75 with the New England Patriots, Houston Oilers and Denver Broncos, described a culture where use of painkillers and other drugs were common.
“Back then you had a pharmacist on the team,” Mr. Cindrich said. “The pharmacist was another player and he’d have any kind of drug you needed to get through the day. They were called pep pills and black beauties. Drugs were prevalent in the 1970s.”
Mr. Cindrich later became a lawyer and agent for NFL players and saw the practice continue from the 1980s to 2000s. He said he testified as an expert witness in cases where painkillers were illegally distributed to players.
“They would willingly see damage done to players,” Mr. Cindrich said.
Mr. Cindrich said some teams were more negligent than others in their care of players. He said the Steelers were among the better teams his clients dealt with when it came to health care and the prescription drug culture.
Mr. Hartings said he believes this lawsuit — like the NFL concussion lawsuit that netted nearly $1 billion for retired players dealing with head injuries — is not for former players to get rich.
“Players just want to get their medical bills paid,” he said.
Mr. Pear, who maintains a blog for retired players dealing with post-football injuries, is an advocate for players from his era. He said it’s been his experience that the only way to get the NFL to pay for benefits for retired players is by suing.
“The NFL has had to change the way they handle players, but they only changed because they had to,” Mr. Pear said. “The NFL isn’t capable of doing the right thing. They’re just waiting for us to die off.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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