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The NFL owes Congress and the public some answers

Members of Congress have some questions for the NFL about its drug practices. The first one asked of Commissioner Roger Goodell should be, "Explain to us, please, how your league is different from an illegal enterprise?"

It turns out that the NFL has been keeping drug logs. Every year, all of its teams send itemized lists of drugs and dosages to a medical adviser in the league office in New York. Now, keeping drug logs and counting pills in the Park Avenue executive suite is a very curious and telling thing to do. What it shows is that the league office has known that it has a drug problem, and not only that, but has known the exact size of it.

The NFL always wants public benefits, but it never wants to take public responsibility. It wants antitrust exemptions, and nonprofit status for its Park Avenue offices, and tax breaks, and bond issues and financing. But then it wants to claim it's a private business. It doesn't want the public to know how it really operates, or to answer to the public at all.

No one would have ever known about the drug logs if it weren't for a lawsuit filed by 1,800 former players alleging they suffered long-term physical damage from painkiller over-prescription. A federal judge has allowed the case to go forward and in a rare move, unsealed it. Usually, when anyone asks the NFL for information, its lawyers start producing magic cloaks of invisibility. It hides its labor practices in collective bargaining clauses and its finances under a mantle of confidentiality, arguing that it's really just a bunch of loosely aligned individual private businesses, merely a trade association. Really. Goodell is being paid $44 million a year to manage a trade association.

What the painkiller case should demonstrate to Congress is that the league has been given way too much consideration. Its longtime antitrust exemption has apparently served to make the team owners feel they are exempt from pretty much every other kind of federal regulation, too. Teams arrogantly flout laws that other businesses live under. They ignore basic federal requirements. There is no better example of this than their willfully shoddy record-keeping and evading of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

All American businesses have to fill out workplace injury paperwork. The meatpacking industry, auto industry, construction, software. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires all U.S. employers to fill out individual workplace injury reports. You think the NFL has been filling out its forms and sending them to OSHA? Have a little fun, and go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and take a look. Gamblers get better injury reports from the NFL than the government does.

Apparently, NFL personnel treated DEA regulations about the same. All of the following is cited in the players' lawsuit, much of it in memos and depositions from the league's own doctors and other personnel: Trainers handed out Vicodin, though they're legally prohibited from doing so; doctors crossed state lines with bags of meds; drugs were improperly stored or not secured, and went missing; players were given substances that were unrecorded or never noted, were not told what they were being given or advised of the risks. 

"These allegations suggest a troubling lack of respect for the laws governing the handling of controlled substances, and raise questions about the league's dedication to the health and safety of its players," read a letter sent to Goodell on Wednesday from four Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, demanding an explanation of league practices.

Nobody likes regulations. But they matter, because they're how the public assesses industries. Data from those regulations is how we learn where there is a problem and consider reforms that impact public health.

The NFL has a huge impact on public health — and it owes public accountability. The league spends $45 million a year to promote tackle football to children, and its practices trickle down to college locker rooms. Injuries in the league are a problem comparable to coal dust, an environmental risk factor. There is more than a little evidence to suggest that the NFL has been systematically shifting the long-term costs of those injuries — the concussions and joint replacements, and now perhaps addictions and organ damage allegedly caused by painkiller practices — to the public. Teams fight workers' compensation cases tooth and nail. Players' health insurance only lasts for five years beyond their playing careers, and aging NFL players who wind up disabled often turn to Social Security Disability and Medicare. 

We're in the middle of a national opioid epidemic and a sports concussion crisis. Meanwhile NFL doctors have made their patients very heavy users of Vicodin and administered the powerful anti-inflammatory Toradol, which can promote brain bleeding, as an off-label prophylactic to deaden pain on the field during games.

The league should pick up the tab for that. Government oversight is never a first choice. But some businesses are so obstinate and so evasive that there's no other option.

The painkiller case will proceed, with more discovery to come. But in the meantime, Congress should start taking some public depositions. NFL owners habitually don't believe anyone is entitled to look at their ledgers or tell them how to do business. But the fact is that taxpayers have heavily subsidized them, and Congress has given them the exemptions that make their massive revenue possible. They owe some answers for that.

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