Former Pro Bowl defender Marcellus Wiley added his name to a lawsuit accusing NFL teams of illegally dispensing powerful narcotics and other drugs to keep players on the field without regard for their long-term health.
“The first thing people ask is, knowing what happened, would you do it again?” said Wiley, currently an ESPN analyst. “No. No I wouldn’t.”
The lawsuit was originally filed May 20 in U.S. District Court in northern California and amended Wednesday to add 250 more players, bringing the total to 750 plaintiffs. Wiley, who played in Buffalo, San Diego, Dallas and Jacksonville from 1997-2006, is the ninth player identified by name, joining former Chicago Bears Jim McMahon, Richard Dent and Keith Van Horne, Jeremy Newberry and others.
The lawsuit, which is seeking class certification, covers the years 1968-2008. It contends team physicians and trainers across the NFL routinely — and often illegally — provided powerful narcotics and other controlled substances on game days to mask the pain.
Among them were the painkillers Percodan, Percocet and Vicodin, anti-inflammatories such as Toradol, and sleep aids such as Ambien. Lead attorney Steven Silverman said some teams filled out prescriptions in players’ names without their knowledge or consent. He said those drugs were then “handed out like candy at Halloween” and often combined in “cocktails.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league had no comment.
The former players have reported a range of debilitating effects, from chronic muscle and bone ailments to permanent nerve and organ damage to addiction. The players contend those health problems came from drug use but many of the conditions aren’t tied to the use of painkillers.
Six of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including McMahon and Van Horne, were also parties to the concussion-related class-action lawsuit filed against the NFL less than a year ago. The NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle that case — without acknowledging it concealed the risks of concussions from former players. A federal judge has yet to approve the settlement, expressing concern the amount is too small.
Wiley, 39, was not part of the concussion lawsuit, but decided to join former players in this one after suffering partial renal failure in April, despite no history of kidney problems. Wiley said he took “multiple injections” of painkillers over the course of a season to cope with an injury that then-San Diego team physician Dr. Steven Chao diagnosed as severe groin sprain. After the season, an independent doctor diagnosed a torn abdominal wall that required surgery.
“You can’t walk into a doctor’s office and say, “Give me this, give me that, just to get through the day.’ Somebody would shut the place down,” Wiley said in a telephone interview. “But that’s what was going on in the NFL. It’s easy to get mesmerized. I won’t deny that; there’s this ‘play through-the-pain, fall-on-the-sword’ culture, and somebody in line ready to step up and take your place…
“And the next question when people hear about this stuff is ‘where’s the personal responsibility?’ Well, I’m not a medical doctor” he added, “but I did take the word of a medical doctor who took an oath to get me through not just one game, or one season, but a lifetime. Meanwhile, he’s getting paid by how many bodies he gets out on the field.”
Chao stepped down as San Diego’s team physician last June, after the NFL Players Association called for him to be replaced and filed a complaint. An independent panel cleared Chao.
In April, as part of a stipulated settlement, Chao was placed on probation by the Medical Board of California. His license was also revoked, but that action was stayed while he remains on probation. He was accused of committing gross negligence, repeated negligent acts and acts of dishonesty or corruption. Chao was also found liable of malpractice in 2012 in a case involving a regular patient, not a Chargers player, with a judgment of nearly $5.2 million. Records also show he has been publicly reprimanded by the board and pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.
The lawsuit’s main burden is proving cause and effect — that use of painkillers in the past caused the chronic problems the players face now. The players also would have to show that they are suffering those problems at a greater rate than other people their age, and that it’s not due to other risk factors such as obesity, smoking and family history.