May 22, 2014 at 8:59 AM ET
Shortly after J.D. Hill's pro football career ended in 1979, he descended into drug abuse and homelessness because of a 20-year struggle with addiction that he says stemmed from the NFL illegally providing him painkillers and narcotics.
Hill, a former wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, is one of six plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit by more than 600 former players filed Tuesday in federal court in San Francisco. The suit alleges the NFL supplied players with addictive drugs without prescriptions in order to mask pain and conceal injuries, without explaining the medical risks. The lawsuit alleges that the NFL "legally and unethically substituted pain medications for proper health care to keep the NFL's tsunami of dollars flowing,"
"We had medication to go to sleep before games,'' Hill told Matt Lauer on TODAY Thursday. "We had painkillers before the game, we had painkillers at halftime, painkillers after the game. Then you would get beer. No one ever told us (about the effects)."
"I think we're dealing with just mismanagement of controlled substances,'' former NFL linebacker Ron Pritchard, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, told Lauer. "They should have paid attention closer and had my best interest and J.D.'s best interest at heart."
The lawsuit alleges that when teams were traveling by plane, "NFL trainers would have the medications in a briefcase and would walk down the aisle, handing out pills or placing them on players' seats in contravention of federal law while the players were provided with beer at the back of the plane. Doctors were aboard these flights, knew the players were drinking alcohol and being provided various medications, yet said nothing to them about the risks of these medications, or of mixing these medications with alcohol."
"I wouldn't say that it was in a briefcase, but (a doctor) was walking down the (aisle) and you needed something to come off the buzz that you took before the game and so you're asking for Quaaludes or Valium,'' Pritchard said.
"I'm asking (for the drugs), but they had them there for you,'' Pritchard said. "They knew you were going to ask them. Let me turn that around. Why are they putting it on the shelf for me to take? Are they wrong for having it there? They put it there for a reason and in that culture and that competition and that level of football and athletics, it's going to happen. They knew you were going to take that pill."
"We didn't know about (the effects),'' Hill said. "We didn't know we should even have that information."
Dr. Matthew J. Matava, the president of the NFL Physicians Society Task Force and the St. Louis Rams' team doctor, issued a statement on behalf of the NFL.
"As the president of the NFL Physicians Society, I am surprised by this lawsuit. As an NFL team doctor for the past 14 years, I have seen first-hand the outstanding medical care that team doctors provide to players on and off the field. I will leave it to others to respond to the specific allegations of the lawsuit, but as doctors we put our players first."
"I can't say you would put the players first now that we know what we know now,'' Hill said in response to the statement. "If medications that we were receiving as players, if a doctor would give a person that same prescription of medication, they're told, 'Do not drive.' They gave us that medication and not only did they give us that medication...we also had alcohol with it, and no one told us the effects. If we would've gotten stopped by a police officer, we would've went to jail."
The group of plaintiffs, which also includes former Chicago Bears stars Richard Dent and Jim McMahon, want more than just a financial settlement.
"I want a couple things,'' Pritchard said. "I want to see the culture change. It's got to change. I have three little boys, grandchildren, and I'm already telling them about all this. I'm not interested in them playing football at all because of what we know about the brain, what we know about the concussion, what we know about the medicine. It's out of control."