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DEA investigates use of painkillers to keep NFL players in the game

National Football League teams were hit with surprise federal inspections on Sunday as part of an ongoing investigation of prescription drug abuse, tied to a lawsuit brought by former players. Jeffrey Brown talks to Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, which broke the story.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The National Football League has been hit hard by controversial headlines recently, but TV ratings on game day haven't suffered yet.

    Yesterday, after the action finished on the field, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration launched surprise raids to see if several teams were improperly using pain medication.

    Jeffrey Brown has more.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Washington Post respond that DEA agents conducted searches of at least three teams, the San Francisco 49ers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the reigning champions, the Seattle Seahawks. Agents were looking into the use and possible abuse of painkilling drugs, an investigation tied to a lawsuit brought by former players.

    Sally Jenkins helped break the story for The Post, and she joins me now.

    Well, thanks for joining us.

    So, first of all, what exactly were the agents looking for?

  • SALLY JENKINS, The Washington Post:

    Well, they were looking for instances of inconsistencies in paperwork, improper paperwork, lack of paperwork.

    For instance, under the Controlled Substances Act, a physician in California has to have the proper registration in New York to dispense prescription drugs if he comes here and attempts to treat a parent and hand them narcotic painkillers, which is the sort of thing that the DEA is looking into with the NFL.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So they're — as I said, they're all tied to this class action lawsuit. What are the former players saying happened that led to this investigation?

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    Well, what triggered the investigation was a lawsuit by about 1,300 former NFL players, some of them very recently retired, who allege in their lawsuit that the NFL has a pattern of prescription drug abuse, that doctors and trainers have prescribed medications in excessive amounts over excessive periods of time, that they have handed out medication without prescriptions, unlabeled, those sorts of things.

    There are stories — as one plaintiff attorney said, they have accused the NFL of handing out these narcotic painkillers like Halloween candy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, they picked certain teams, three that we know of. Do we know why and do we know if it's limited to those teams or is this for the whole league?

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    The Washington Post's understanding, based on our reporting, is that it's — they're looking at the entire league. This is not restricted to the teams that were inspected yesterday.

    We can add the Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions to that list, so we know of five teams. We believe there's another team or two out there that may have been inspected or that are being looked at in this phase of the investigation, but we — we can't name those.

    But the bottom line is that this is a piece or a step in a larger DEA investigation into prescription drug usage in the NFL.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This part of it though was a real surprise to the teams? Do you know how they — how did they respond?

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    Well, I think it was intended as a surprise to the teams. Whether or not they got some sort of tip or had some sort of knowledge, I don't know.

    But the DEA basically set out to pop quiz those teams and their medical staffs yesterday as they moved through stadiums and airports. The idea was to examine a group of teams that was actually traveling on a Sunday to look at their practices and their paperwork and see if they were in compliance.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have covered this…

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    And, by the way…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, go ahead.

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    Yes, let me just interject that the New Orleans — DEA spokesperson down in New Orleans issued a statement this afternoon that the Cincinnati Bengals were looked at and appeared to be in compliance.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have covered the league a long time. Anybody who watches knows it's a real culture of violence and pain.

    It's not a surprise that players are using these kind of drugs. And there's been a lot of issues of getting back on the field too early. Is it — is it — in that context, is all of this a surprise or is this — this is really focusing on the legality of what's done?

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    I don't think it's a surprise that NFL players use narcotic painkillers.

    I don't think it's a surprise that there have been loose practices in the league. The DEA has looked at individual teams before yesterday. There was a case a couple of years ago with the San Diego Chargers where they looked into their prescription practices, the same with the New Orleans Saints.

    But the DEA up to this point had not conducted a comprehensive investigation into the league-wide practices concerning painkillers. So that's what's new here. You know, the interesting question is, you know, NFL physicians are confronted with a real dilemma.

    What is the difference and the fine line between treating an injury and masking an injury? What is the fine line between, you know, administering painkillers in order to relieve pain and administering narcotic painkillers in order to enable an injured player to go back out on the field and reinjure himself further?

    And the big question for the DEA that they're concerned about is, is the NFL culture of drug use and narcotic painkiller, prescription drug use creating addicts? I think that's the question that the DEA is the most interested in.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And very briefly, if you would, what — is the NFL cooperating? What's their attitude?

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    Yes, the NFL issued a statement last night that their teams had cooperated with the DEA and that, to their knowledge, there were no irregularities that were found in the step that was conducted yesterday by the DEA.

    The DEA obviously is not tipping its hand to what it really was after yesterday or the overall, you know, scope of what it's looking at or, you know, who it's looking at in particular. They're holding those cards pretty close to the vest.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right.

    Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

  • SALLY JENKINS:

    Thank you.

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