Even with all its power and success, the NFL can't escape the sins of its past.
A group of retired players sued the NFL on Tuesday, claiming the league gave them powerful pain killers and anti-inflammatories to keep them on the field, never warning them about the long-term dangers to their health. This as the NFL is still trying to persuade a federal judge to accept a $765 million settlement with another group of former players, who claimed the league hid or ignored the devastating effects of concussions and other head trauma.
"It does seem to reflect a trend, for a period of time, of recklessness on the part of the NFL," said Stanford law professor Bill Gould, the former chair of the National Labor Relations Board. "This litigation, if the complaint is accurate, would reflect very much the same kind of reckless or cavalier attitude toward player safety that seemed to be present the concussion lawsuit."
And it's the one thing that could bring ruin to the NFL.
"We're seeing a change in attitude about the costs that it's fair to impose on players for playing professional (sports)," said David Orentlicher, a lawyer and physician who is co-director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
"It's not uncommon these days to hear parents say, 'My kid's not playing football.' So I think that's the larger question. Is this going to snowball in a way that people are going to start turning their attention to other sports?"
Because the latest lawsuit is in its early stages, it's too soon to say what its prospects for success are or how costly it could be to the NFL. The league hasn't seen the lawsuit yet, spokesman Greg Aiello said, and its attorneys haven't had an opportunity to review it.
There are the horror stories told by the eight plaintiffs, three of whom were Super Bowl champions with the 1985 Chicago Bears: Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent, Jim McMahon and Keith Van Horne. And there are enough similarities to claims made in the concussion lawsuit to warrant a closer look.
The eight players– attorneys have asked for class-action status, saying more than 500 former players are involved – paint a picture of a league that "recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players' health for profit."
Team doctors and trainers "were handing out drugs like it was Halloween candy," attorney Steve Silverman said, "to mask these injuries to get these guys out on the field, to their detriment." The list of narcotics, anti-inflammatories and local anesthetics reads like a pharmacy -- Toradol, Percocet, Vicodin, Ambien, Prednisone, Lidocaine – and the eight players estimate they were given "hundreds, if not thousands" of injections and pills over the years.
Not once were they warned about the potential dangers.
Jeremy Newberry, who played center for the three teams from 1998 to 2008, said he would get a shot of Toradol, an anti-inflammatory that can cause bleeding and renal failure, before a game, then get multiple injections of pain killers during the game. Afterward, he'd take Vicodin and Ambien. He now has Stage-3 renal failure.
McMahon, Dent and J.D. Hill, a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions in the 1970s, all said they became addicted to painkillers. Hill's addiction got so bad it left him homeless, and he was in and out of treatment centers for more than 20 years before he finally got clean.
But it wasn't just the drugs. The players say there was a general disregard for their health. McMahon only learned two or three years ago that he'd broken his neck during his career. Van Horne, an offensive tackle, said he played an entire season on a broken leg. Not only was he not told for five years, he was "fed a constant diet of pills to deal with the pain."
"This is a lose-lose situation for the NFL," Gould said. "Just the focus of attention on this general subject of player safety and the reckless abandon that's associated with NFL play, it can do them no good."
This won't be as easy a case as the concussion lawsuit. Yes, the dangers of drugs were clearer and known earlier than that of concussions. But there is something about a person's diminishing memory — their very being — that engenders sympathy like nothing else.
There's also the notion that players should have known better with such a violent game. Sure, NFL players are going to have aches and pains. That comes with being an athlete. But the days of these guys being seen as bionic gladiators died with Junior Seau.
These are men with families and futures, and their lives shouldn't be cut short in the name of entertainment.
Follow Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.