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Starkey: Feeling pain of ex-NFL players

| Saturday, May 24, 2014, 10:20 p.m.
AP file
Chicago Bears defensive end Richard Dent chases a ball during the NFL playoffs Jan. 16, 1986 in Chicago. A group of retired NFL players says in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the league, thirsty for profits, illegally supplied them with risky narcotics and other painkillers that numbed their injuries for games and led to medical complications down the road.

They deserve more than a roll of the eyes.

That's my feeling about ex-NFL players who struggle with serious afflictions and wonder whether they were used and abused beyond the parameters of their job descriptions.

They deserve to be heard. They deserve respect.

You loved them when they played, right? You loved them for suiting up through broken bones and battered brains because you desperately wanted your team to win.

So how can it feel right to toss them aside like balls of used ankle tape the instant their careers end?

That's one piece of this. The emotional piece.

The other is strictly legal.

We can talk all we like about how these guys got their money and glory and would probably do it over again. We can say they had to know the job was inherently dangerous. What we cannot say for sure is whether they knew the specific risks associated with specific drugs, and that is a critical piece of the latest lawsuit ex-players have filed against the NFL.

Players claim they were not properly informed of the possible long-term dangers of a smorgasbord of painkillers — including illegally supplied narcotics, they say — that kept them on the field.

If they weren't properly informed, somebody's liable. And somebody should be.

About 500 ex-players, including Chicago Bears legends Jim McMahon and Richard Dent, filed the suit. Ex-Steelers center Jeff Hartings is not part of it, but he understands the rationale.

“If they have information that shows doctors and drug manufacturers understood there would be long-term consequences, then I believe it's the right of a citizen of the United States to file a lawsuit, and I would probably be supportive of that,” Hartings said. “I'm not saying I would join, but I'd support them because I fit in. Maybe there's some things I didn't understand that I wish I would have at least been made aware of. Maybe I would have continued to take (the drugs), but maybe I wish I would have been aware of (risks such as) liver disease.

“You gotta remember, I'm 42 years old, and these guys are 55-60. They're going through things that I might go through when I'm 55-60 with my brain and body. I'm not living in their shoes right now, but I'm very well aware that in 15 years I might be, so I better support them now.”

We've heard the horror stories of retired players, yet it still feels jolting — and important — to hear more. Hartings said he took a variety of painkillers to get through his career, including the ever-popular Toradol.

Toradol has been described as a wonder drug, like Motrin on steroids, only it's non-steroidal, non-addictive and FDA-approved. But it also may have long-term side effects and was the centerpiece of another ex-player lawsuit filed three years ago. Retired NFL center Jeremy Newberry claimed he was suffering from Stage 3 kidney failure doctors attributed to Toradol.

I was surprised when I walked into the Steelers locker room the week of a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in December 2012 and found players open about their pregame use of Toradol.

“The doctors say it helps,” Ben Roethlisberger told me then. “So I take it.”

When then-Steelers linebacker Larry Foote came into the league, he didn't worry about risks (he said he wasn't warned of any) because the reward was so great.

The risks remain largely unknown. The rewards are quite obvious.

“You take it an hour before the game,” Hartings said, “and all of a sudden you don't have any pain.”

As such, a player could be seriously injured (concussed, perhaps) without feeling it. And when the Toradol wears off …

“You talk about hitting the wall, feeling like you've been in a car accident?” Hartings said. “The next day, I probably shouldn't have had anybody around me because you feel so sick, your head is so hungover. You definitely could have had a concussion and not realized it.”

Surely you can see how a player on Monday would want something different to take the edge off. And Tuesday. And pretty much any day that ends in “y.”

Should any rational human know that prolonged use of painkillers could lead to long-term health problems? Of course. And some ex-players, including former Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Tony Boselli, have denounced the latest lawsuit.

But that doesn't mean an organization gets to keep valuable information from its employees.

If NFL teams indeed were doing that, and ex-players can prove it, somebody will be liable.

And somebody should be.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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