Lawsuit against NFL should be interesting


PITTSBURGH — The phrase keeps recurring:

“They handed them out like candy.”

That’s what a lot of former NFL players have said about the way teams would distribute pain-killing medication.

Prescription-strength pills were abundant and given out freely. Injections were available, too, offered with the same idea. Keep the players available to play.

The practice has come to light because of a massive lawsuit filed on behalf of a large group of former players.

They allege that NFL teams didn’t take their interests into consideration, but rather did whatever was necessary to keep injured players on the field.

The courts will hash this out, but there’s little doubt the players were put in a precarious position by the easy availability of heavy-duty meds. The process was so routine that players had nicknames for certain drugs, and joked about a line forming for pain-relieving injections.

Some players developed a dependency. Others played through injuries they could no longer feel and wound up with permanent damage.

It goes without saying that pro football is a brutal business. For three hours, 300-pound men slam into each other. Bone-jarring tackles are made on rock-hard fields.

The turf at Three Rivers Stadium used to get like concrete in cold weather. Imagine being slammed down on that surface 30 times over the course of a game, which would represent a routine day’s work for a running back.

Adrenalin carries the players through the game. The reality of Monday morning hits hard.

A newspaper photographer once went home with Jerome Bettis to document what the morning after was like. Bettis had to hang onto the walls to get to the kitchen for breakfast. His legs hurt so badly, they could barely support him.

The players volunteer for this work, so they have some idea what they’re getting themselves into. Most players are interested in doing whatever is necessary to stay in the lineup.

Former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell tells a story about his early days, when Hall of Famer Ernie Stautner was still playing on the Steelers’ defensive line. Stautner injured his hand, and one of his fingers was grotesquely yanked out of its joint.

Stautner went to the sideline, taped the injured finger to the others and returned to the field.

In 2002, Bettis requested an injection so he could play through a groin injury. The shot was mishandled, and he wound up missing the game.

The NFL has finally established a protocol for concussions. But the Miami Dolphins failed to follow that procedure properly in last season’s playoff game when Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree blasted quarterback Matt Moore on a rush. Moore didn’t question the team’s handling of the incident. The mentality was the same: Stay in the game.

A lot of players left a lot of themselves on the fields of NFL stadiums across the country. They’ve been paying the price for a long time.

Their pain and suffering is unquestioned. The issue is whether they’ll get compensation for the way they were treated.

This is a case that should be fascinating.

Mehno can be reached at