In a reply to members of a Congressional committee, the NFL said that its club doctors were relying on guidance from the Drug Enforcement Administration over the proper handling of controlled substances, advice given years before the agency launched an investigation into the league.
In the wake of allegations levied in a federal lawsuit filed by former players, four Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month asked the league to explain how its teams administered drugs and whether they were in compliance with the Controlled Substances Act. In a 12-page response signed by Dennis Curran, the NFL's senior vice president and general counsel, and delivered to the lawmakers Wednesday, the league said the NFL teams had consulted for many years with the DEA and believed they were following the law.
Curran cited a 1994 letter to the former Dolphins team doctor from a DEA official that said teams could travel and administer prescription medications on the road. "At locations where drugs are not stored, or on domestic road trips, the practitioner may dispense or administer controlled substances from a medical bag," the DEA said, according to Curran's letter to the lawmakers.
That advice runs counter to what the agency later told the NFL. In 2011, a DEA official met with medical staff from all 32 teams and delivered a 90-minute presentation on the Controlled Substances Act, warning the doctors against traveling with controlled substances, administering them at road games, improperly storing them at team facilities and allowing athletic trainers to dispense them to players.
Those issues would later form much of the foundation for a federal lawsuit filed by former NFL players who allege team doctors improperly administered prescription medications over several years. The DEA also acknowledged in 2014 that it launched an investigation into the NFL teams.
The NFL's response to the lawmakers marked the league's most expansive explanation to date of the teams' use of prescription pain medication and its most detailed response to the allegations posed by ex-players. In its letter to the Congressmen, the league did not protest some of the ex-players' charges - that teams traveled with controlled substances, that doctors administered medications on the road, that athletic trainers dispensed medications at times. Rather the league said its teams were acting in accordance with its understanding of the Controlled Substances Act at the time.
For example, Curran wrote that team trainers who dispensed medicine "did so at the direction - and under the supervision - of club physicians."
"This was not a violation of the law," he wrote, "to the contrary, the Controlled Substances Act expressly provides that an authorized agent of a practitioner may administer a controlled substance in the presence of the practitioner. ... Athletic trainers are authorized agents of the club physicians."
He also told the lawmakers that NFL teams now utilize electronic medical records to ensure proper record-keeping and that players are properly advised of their "medications, their uses, benefits, and risks, and that club physicians have taken player medical history into account when treating players."
The congressmen asked specifically about Toradol, a powerful non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, asking how frequently it was used and whether the NFL keeps records of its use. Curran said individual clubs maintain records and while Toradol use varies from team to team, he did not share any details in his letter.
The former players' lawsuit said 30-35 players would line up to receive Toradol before games in anticipation of the pain they'd experience on the field. One Steelers' team doctor "testified that even last season, he witnessed players lining up for the 'T Train,' " according to the ex-players' complaint.
Curran wrote: "Each provision of Toradol to an NFL player by a team physician represents the result of an individual doctor-patient consultation, and the physician's conclusion that Toradol should be administered."
The letter did not delve much into the quantity of prescription medications teams give players to take the field each week, but it did parcel out some of the numbers cited in the lawsuit.
According to a 2012 drug audit, the Steelers provided its players 7,442 doses of NSAIDs and 2,123 doses of unnamed controlled medications in a single season. Curran noted that nearly half of those controlled substances were either Ambien or Adderall - not pain medication - and that team doctors administered 108 Toradol injections that year.
"These world-class team doctors - who are associated with and supported by our nation's leading hospitals, health care systems and research institutions - provide expert medical care and support to players on and off the field," he wrote.