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Painkiller lawsuit is the latest damning player health accusation against the NFL

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More than 1,500 ex-players say NFL coaches and employees recklessly pushed painkillers on them.

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House Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing On Football Head Injuries Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After years of litigation, a federal appeals court approved a settlement this spring between the NFL and the roughly 20,000 ex-players who contest the league was negligent in its handling of concussions. Though the attorneys of almost 70 of those former players requested a rehearing, it was later denied. Their last option is a long shot: convincing the Supreme Court to review the case. Most likely, one of the most high-profile legal cases involving the league will soon be put to rest — just in time for perhaps an even more damning lawsuit against the NFL to possibly reach the courts.

The suit, which was filed by more than 1,500 ex-players in May 2015, alleges that all 32 NFL teams peddled powerful painkillers to players while lying about the drugs’ aftereffects. A federal judge denied a motion last Friday to dismiss the case, meaning the discovery phase of the trial will begin.

A similar lawsuit wasn’t allowed to proceed in 2014, because Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California, the same justice who’s presiding over this current case, said the collective bargaining agreement was the proper forum to resolve the dispute. But this time around, instead of suing the league, a new group of plaintiffs — including Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame defensive back Mel Renfro and the widow of former Minnesota Vikings fullback Chuck Evans — have decided to name each club individually.

The accusations that are levied in the suit are jarring. According to the Washington Post, the players allege that several former head coaches and team employees pressured them to take the field even when they were in serious pain. Some of the most notable former coaches who are mentioned are Don Shula (Miami Dolphins), Wayne Fontes (Detroit Lions), Mike Tice (Vikings) and Mike Holmgren (Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks).

Ever since Dr. Bennett Omalu diagnosed the first case of CTE in a deceased NFL player (former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster) in 2002, the league has been fighting a barrage of reports that claim it attempted to conceal the truth about the connection between brain trauma and football for decades. In 2006, for example, the NFL’s medical director said Omalu’s findings about the link between CTE and playing football were "completely wrong."

The league’s stance has become a little more nuanced since then. Although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell equated the danger of playing football to sitting on the couch in February, NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller admitted there is a connection between football and neurodegenerative diseases a month later. Soon after, Goodell didn’t contradict Miller’s statement.

"A lot of the research is still in its infancy, but we're trying to find ways to accelerate that, and that's part of what we're doing in investing in additional research," Goodell said at the NFL owners meeting. "But we're also not waiting for the research. We're going out and making the changes to our game."

Even when the NFL seemingly puts forth a goodwill gesture on this issue, a strong whiff of apparent duplicity follows. Four years ago, the NFL issued a $30 million grant to the National Institute of Health in order to advance the organization’s head trauma and brain injury research. But in May, members of Congress issued a 91-page report that says the NFL reneged funding for a concussion study that will seek to diagnose CTE in living patients. According to the document, the league attempted to redirect that money to members of its brain injury committee. The NFL has renounced the report.

At this point, the NFL has lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to allegations about the league’s deceit regarding to its handling of player health. The painkiller lawsuit is the latest, and maybe strongest, example why.