1985 Chicago Bears Suffer Consequences of Excessive Painkiller Use

By Victoria Kim 01/20/15

An upcoming episode of HBO's Real Sports will explore rampant painkiller abuse in the NFL.

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The NFL’s unwritten policy of illegally dispensing painkillers to players is detailed in an upcoming episode of Real Sports, as told through the lens of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Painkillers and pills were “plentiful” to the team, former Bears coach Mike Ditka told Bryant Gumbel in the episode. “There’s no question about it,” he said. “Now, who are you mad at? The team? Are you mad at the league? Are you mad at the sport? Are you mad at me? You’re not going to cure them right now. It’s only going to get worse. It ain’t going to get better.”

In May 2014, eight former NFL players filed a lawsuit claiming that the league illegally supplied painkillers to players in order to hide their injuries and keep them on the field.

“The NFL knew of the debilitating effects of these drugs on all of its players and callously ignored the players’ long-term health in its obsession to return them to play,” said Steven Silverman, the attorney for the class action lawsuit, which included former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, defensive end Richard Dent, and offensive tackle Keith Van Horne.

Years of playing through pain on a regular diet of painkillers has taken a toll on the players’ physical and mental health. McMahon’s body is “so battered” that at times he can barely move. “I just lay in my room for days,” he told Gumbel. “Days, weeks…and stare at the ceiling.” McMahon said he suffered a broken neck and ankle injuries that were never disclosed by doctors. Instead, he was given medications and pushed back onto the field to play.

Ditka said that if he had a young son today, he wouldn’t allow him to play football. “That’s sad. I wouldn’t. And my whole life was football,” he told Gumbel. “I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”

Ditka said defensive tackle William Perry is “a very fragile individual now.” Former linebacker Wilber Marshall is on full disability. The 1985 NFL season Coach of the Year told Gumbel that the league should “implement something for the former players who played this game and made this game what it is today,” saying the commissioner and owners have an “obligation and responsibility” to the players.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr