Dozens of former players joining a lawsuit against the NFL say teams kept handing out powerful painkillers and other drugs with few — if any— safeguards as recently as 2012. That extends by four years the time frame for similar claims made in the original complaint and could open the door to a criminal investigation.
"On flights home, the routine was the same everywhere," said Brett Romberg, who played center in Jacksonville (2003-05), St. Louis (2006-08) and Atlanta (2009 and 2011). "The trainers walked up and down the aisle and you'd hold up your hand with a number of fingers to show how many pills you wanted. No discussions, no questions. You just take what they hand you and believe me, you'll take anything to dull the pain."
With the federal Drug Enforcement Administration beginning to look into accusations contained in the lawsuit — filed in May and covering the years 1968-2008 — the new allegations could dramatically expand the investigation's scope, legal experts said. Any violation of federal drug laws after 2009 would not be subject to the five-year statute of limitations.
"Then it's no longer just about money. Then it's potentially about criminal conduct and that's a completely different ballpark," said Steven Feldman, a former assistant U.S. Attorney for New York's southern district.
"And all you need is one (criminal) act within the last five years to reach back and say, 'The same group of doctors and trainers were there and' ... if you have enough of them doing the same thing in different locker rooms, well, it's hard to defend as a one-off," he added.
The NFL is not aware of "any DEA subpoenas or investigations into club practices," spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an email Friday. "There has been a league-wide reporting system in place (to track controlled substances and prescriptions issued by team doctors) since 1973 for compliance with DEA and state law requirements."
The DEA declined comment, citing the agency's policy against discussing potential investigations. But law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed that the agency was looking into allegations in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit on behalf of 500 former players was filed in U.S. District Court in northern California and amended two weeks later to add another 250. The nine named plaintiffs include current ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley, Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and Hall of Fame defensive lineman Richard Dent.
It contends the NFL and its teams, physicians and trainers acted without regard for players' health, withholding information about injuries while routinely — and often illegally — providing them with prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Percocet, and anti-inflammatories such as Toradol, to mask pain and minimize lost playing time.
Lead plaintiffs' attorney Steve Silverman said this week that 500 more players have since joined the lawsuit, which is seeking class certification. The latest group includes dozens who played in the NFL between 2009 and 2012 and told lawyers in interviews that little had changed about how some teams handled the drugs. The Associated Press interviewed three of those players.
Romberg described the Jaguars as "very liberal" in doling out painkillers and called the Rams' training room a "huge free-for-all." He said there were some changes in the clubhouse between his two seasons in Atlanta.
"In 2011, you had to see the doctor first. ... You'd still get your Molotov cocktail, but they were tighter about documenting it," Romberg said.
Roscoe Parrish played wide receiver in Buffalo from 2005-11, then on the practice squads in San Diego, Oakland and Tampa Bay, in 2012.
"I had knee problems in 2010, so I started getting, I'm not sure, I think they were Vicodins, in a small white envelope. I played that game without pain, so it became routine," he said.
"I never saw a bottle. They were always in envelopes," Parrish said. "I got accustomed to (Buffalo trainer) Bud Carpenter giving me painkillers and didn't educate myself. All I cared about was playing."
The Bills declined a request to speak to Carpenter, but said in an email response: "Bud Carpenter strongly disagrees with Roscoe Parrish's accusation."
Patrick Cobbs, who joined New England in 2006 as an undrafted free agent and then caught on as running back in Miami through 2010, said he started taking painkillers to deal with hip and rib injuries in 2007-08.
"It seemed like the norm then. Now, you know what that's done to you and it seems so wrong," Cobbs said.
Six of the plaintiffs in the painkillers lawsuit, including McMahon and Van Horne, were also parties to the concussion-related class-action lawsuit last year against the NFL. A federal judge granted preliminary approval to a settlement nearly two weeks ago
The former players in the painkillers lawsuit 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 haven't been definitively linked to painkillers.
Romberg, 34, had three stints inserted during heart surgery just a year after retiring, and said his doctors asked how the team never noticed the heart problems during physicals.
"It could be an anomaly," Romberg said, "and I don't know if there's any correlation. But a lot of pills I took, I look at the warning labels now and a few of them say 'if you have heart issues, don't take them.'"