NFL team doctors booed DEA official at 2011 presentation

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at a press conference. (David Goldman/AP)

A top drug-enforcement official invited by the NFL in 2011 to educate team physicians and staff about medicating players in compliance with federal laws was met with skepticism, catcalls and even occasional boos from the doctors gathered, according to a published report.

"And the funny thing was, I was there to help them. I wasn’t looking to take action against anybody," Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who headed up the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Diversion Control at the time, recalled in a recent interview with the Washington Post.

"I wanted them to understand if they were doing what I think they were doing — if they were just handing out drugs to players — they weren’t doing the players a service as patients," he added.

The presentation, given in a downtown Indianapolis hotel ballroom, was titled "NFL Physicians Briefing: Obligations and Responsibilities under the Controlled Substances Act and Code of Federal Regulations."

Many of the issues raised during the presentation would eventually form the basis for a DEA investigation into how NFL teams administered prescription-strength drugs and other powerful painkillers to their players.

Some of those issues were also raised in a lawsuit originally filed by former players against the league in 2014. That complaint has since been amended and now includes more than 1,800 former players as plaintiffs. They allege NFL team doctors and medical staffs distributed those drugs without regard for players’ safety or long-term health — and sometimes in violation of federal laws covering the storage, handling, transport and record-keeping required.

The NFL has repeatedly denied those allegations and did so again in a letter Wednesday to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is looking into claims contained in the players’ lawsuit.

"Our 32 clubs and their medical staffs continue to put the health and safety of players first, ensuring that all NFL players receive the highest quality medical care," said the letter, signed by Dennis Curran, the league’s general counsel.

"The Washington Post acknowledges that its reporting was based solely on allegations made by the plaintiffs in the club litigation. It is, therefore, not surprising that the article does not accurately describe the scope and quality of medical care provided to players by team doctors and athletic trainers; nor does it accurately describe documents or testimony from the litigation."

Rannazzisi and several team physicians who were present but not identified in the Post account, said the 2011 meeting was contentious from the outset. Doctors were angered to be told, among other things, that federal laws barred them from travelling to road games across state lines with prescription-strength drugs, something they’d been doing for years.

One doctor upset about the travel restriction asked Rannazzisi why the president was allowed to travel with drugs aboard Air Force One. The DEA official explained that statutes grant exemptions for military aircraft.

"I’m thinking as I’m saying this, ‘This is surreal,’ " Rannazzisi recalled. "So he says, ‘The military is exempt? Well, think of our players as warriors every Sunday on the field of battle.’ I was stunned."

Apparently, so were the doctors.

"He was treating everyone like a criminal," said one.

"He was lumping all of the NFL doctors with the pain factory doctors," a second team doctor told the newspaper. "… The whole thing went over like a lead balloon."

Four years passed before NFL fully implemented standards in line with DEA requirements about how teams travel with pain medications, store them at their practice facilities and administer them on the road.

Rannazzisi, who retired from the DEA in 2015 after testifying before Congress and giving hundreds of similar presentations, said the hostile reception was a first for him.

"I’d never experienced that before," he told the newspaper.