DEA launches drug probe into NFL

While NFL teams fought their way through week 11 in the 2014 season, the Drug Enforcement Agency conducted a blitz of its own. Agents staged surprise inspections on a number of teams in pursuit of a probe into prescription drug abuse, searching bags of medical staff and interrogations, with which the teams complied:

Federal drug agents conducted surprise inspections of National Football League team medical staffs on Sunday as part of an ongoing investigation into prescription drug abuse in the league. The inspections, which entailed bag searches and questioning of team doctors by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, were based on the suspicion that NFL teams dispense drugs illegally to keep players on the field in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, according to a senior law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation.

The medical staffs were part of travel parties whose teams were playing at stadiums across the country. The law enforcement official said DEA agents, working in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration, inspected multiple teams but would not specify which ones were inspected or where.

The San Francisco 49ers confirmed they were inspected by federal agents following their game against the New York Giants in New Jersey but did not provide any details. “The San Francisco 49ers organization was asked to participate in a random inspection with representatives from the DEA Sunday night at MetLife Stadium,” team spokesman Bob Lange said in an e-mailed statement. “The 49ers medical staff complied and the team departed the stadium as scheduled.”

The Seattle Seahawks were subject to an inspection following their game in Kansas City, and the DEA met with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Baltimore-Washington International airport following their win over the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. It didn’t appear a full inspection took place, however.

At issue is whether visiting teams are obeying federal laws on distribution of controlled substances, especially painkillers. Federal law makes it a crime for anyone but a doctor or nurse practitioner to distribute such medications under any circumstances, and those have to be registered in the state in which the distribution takes place. Allegations have arisen over the years that trainers routinely distribute controlled substances, and that they travel with the drugs to away games out of state, all of which would violate federal laws.

ESPN picked up on the story later in the evening. The trigger on this was a lawsuit against the league by former players that teams encouraged players to abuse drugs in order to keep players on the field:

A federal law enforcement official, with knowledge of the investigation, told “Outside the Lines” the inspections were motivated by allegations raised in a May 2014 federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of several prominent NFL players, who allege team physicians and trainers routinely gave them painkillers in an illegal manner to mask injuries and keep them on the field. …

As “Outside the Lines” first reported in January 2011, the DEA has taken steps in the past to inform NFL team doctors what treatments they can and cannot provide to players, particularly when they travel for road games.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, doctors cannot give players prescription drugs like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin, outside of the facilities where they are registered with the DEA to prescribe those controlled substances and trainers are not permitted under the federal drug laws to ever provide prescription medications to players.

But according to a federal law enforcement source with knowledge of Sunday’s inspections, the DEA has reason to believe those laws are frequently violated, particularly by visiting NFL teams.

“NFL doctors are not obtaining a separate registration where they are administering controlled substances to NFL players. They are administering in different states and treating players at hotels and stadiums outside of their registered location with the DEA,” the source said.

None of this is new. Accusations from players about teams violating the law to abet drug abuse go back decades, at least to Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty. The league’s popularity might have kept it from getting too much scrutiny in the past, but the class-action lawsuit from players — which may swell to more than 1300 plaintiffs — makes it difficult to ignore now. On top of that, the league is already under fire for sweeping domestic-violence cases under the rug, which makes this a pretty good time for the DEA to crack down on the NFL … before it has a chance to rehabilitate its reputation from that scandal.

For the NFL, the solution is simple anyway. All teams need to do is have reciprocity in access to home-field dispensaries staffed by a doctor or nurse practitioner, while team doctors who travel on road games consult with the home-team staff. In fact, it’s so simple that I’d be surprised if teams aren’t already doing that — which may be why we didn’t hear about arrests last night.