Steelers team physician prominently mentioned in NFL painkillers lawsuit


Steelers team physician Dr. Anthony Yates is prominently mentioned in a lawsuit brought by former NFL players who are suing the league’s 32 teams and alleging they ignored federal drug laws and prescribed an inordinate amount of addictive painkillers.

According to court documents obtained and published by the Washington Post and Deadspin.com, Yates was a member of a league-funded task force to study the use of Toradol, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug that is popular in the league. Yates testified he witnessed players lining up for the “T-Train” — injections of Toradol before games — something that had been occurring with the Steelers for at least the previous 15 years.

Yates also testified that a majority of NFL teams as of 2010 violated federal laws and regulations by allowing trainers to control and handle prescription medications and controlled substances when they should not have.

In a 2010 email exchange with Dr. Elliot Pellman, formerly the league’s medical director, and other team doctors, Yates seemed concerned about the dispensation of controlled substances in regard to investigations by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Yates wrote: “In order to solve the NFL/DEA Dilemma we all need to work together and ‘get along’. NONE of us are immune from scrutiny, trainers, advisors (employed or independent) Park Avenue management and so on. As I’ve said before: To date, there has not been a constructive solution provide (sic) by the home NFL office other than to meet and greet with the DEA and the subsequent legal conference calls. The information to date to the Society is one of ‘Good Luck’ and you are on your own to decide how to adhere to ‘the law’!!! We are where we are because of our association with the NFL.”

Yet Yates and other Steelers physicians were dispensing painkillers at a rate well above the league average. In 2012, the Steelers gave their players 7,442 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs while the league average was 5,777, according to a March 2013 internal document from Lawrence Brown, the NFL-employed medical adviser who oversees its drug issues. They ranked 10th in the league in dispensing NSAIDs. 

It isn’t clear how many players received the drugs, but if a 53-man roster is used as a baseline, that’s 140 doses per player.

The Steelers also distributed 2,123 doses of other controlled substances. They ranked 14th in dispensing those drugs.

A Steelers spokesman said team president Art Rooney II is not commenting on the lawsuit.

At least four former Steelers are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Glen Edwards and Marvin Kellum from the 1970s and Jeffrey Graham and Troy Sadowski from the 1990s.

The following accounts of their experiences with the Steelers are quoted below from court documents:

• While playing for the Steelers in 1997 and 1998 Sadowski received and consumed enormous quantities of pain-numbing and anti-inflammatory medications at the Steelers’ training facility, home stadium and during away games and received Toradol injections before every game in which he played (Mr. Sadowski recalls that before every game he played for the Steelers at home, syringes of Toradol would be lined up in the locker room with players’ numbers, not their names, on them), all of which he received from Steelers’ doctors and trainers, including from head trainer Rick Burkholder, who failed to provide a prescription when one was necessary; identify the medication by its established name; provide adequate directions for the medications’ use, including adequate warnings of uses that have potentially dangerous health consequences; or provide the recommended or usual dosage for the medications. The medications were provided to him for the sole purpose of enabling him to practice and play through pain.

• While playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1991 to 1993, Graham received and consumed enormous quantities of pain-numbing and anti-inflammatory medications, including but not limited to Naproxen, Vicodin, Indocin, Medrol, Celebrex, Darvocet, Tylenol-Codeine #3, and Erythromycin, at the Steelers’ training facility, home stadium and during away games, all of which he received from Steelers team doctors such as James Bradley or trainers, including but not limited to trainers John Norwig and Ralph Berlin, who failed to provide a prescription when one was necessary; provide adequate warnings of uses that have potentially dangerous health consequences; or provide the recommended or usual dosage for the medications.

The medications were provided to him for the sole purpose of enabling him to practice and play through pain. Mr. Graham testified that the very first time he ever received an anti-inflammatory injection in the NFL, it was from Dr. Bradley who never told him about the potential side effects or long term consequences of taking multiple injections of anti-inflammatories. Mr. Graham also testified that he received further anti-inflammatories from team trainers. Mr. Graham testified that if he had been told about the risks and long term consequences, “I would not have [taken] the shot.”

Graham also specifically recalls being pressured by his position coach, Bob Harrison, to play in a playoff game (“we need you to play”) during his third season despite a high ankle sprain that was causing him significant pain and limiting his effectiveness.

• While playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1971 to 1978, Edwards regularly received Novocain and enormous quantities of anti-inflammatory drugs, which he consumed, from head trainer Ralph Berlin, who provided no warnings or mention of side effects and for the sole purpose of enabling him to practice and play through pain.

• While playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1976, Kellum regularly received enormous quantities of anti-inflammatory drugs in a paper cup from head trainer Ralph Berlin and team doctors David H. Huber and Paul Steele, who provided no warnings or mention of side effects and for the sole purpose of enabling him to practice and play through pain. Mr. Kellum now suffers from chronic joint pain, fatigue, and arthritis in his shoulders.

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.



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