The San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers received a surprise inspection from the Drug Enforcement Administration on Sunday afternoon as the teams were heading home from Week 11 road games. Agents searched bags and interviewed team doctors as part of a Federal investigation to determine the abuse and mishandling of prescription drugs by NFL teams.
Here's what we know about the DEA investigation so far and what it might mean for players, teams and the NFL going forward.
Why is the DEA concerned with what NFL team doctors are doing?
Each NFL team has its own medical staff that examines and treats its players. Part of that job includes giving players prescriptions for medications regulated by Federal law under the Controlled Substances Act. It's the DEA's job to enforce the CSA.
Drugs handed out by teams include narcotic painkillers such as Oxycontin and Percocet. Team medical staffs are in possession of those kinds of medications and others that they distribute to players, and they're required to adhere to the guidelines set forth in the CSA.
A lawsuit filed by a group of former NFL players in May 2014 alleges that team doctors and trainers illegally gave players painkillers and other medications to mask symptoms and rush them back onto the field. Those players say that they've suffered a myriad of long-term health problems, including addiction, as a result. That lawsuit spurred the current DEA investigation.
What were Federal agents looking for in Sunday's surprise inspections?
The CSA restricts the geographic location where doctors can prescribe those medications. It also dictates a rigorous practice of labeling and storing controlled substances as well as documenting their distribution. Agents searched bags and interviewed the medical staffs of road teams -- the 49ers, Buccaneers and Seahawks -- to determine whether team doctors were issuing prescriptions outside their licensed geographical area.
DEA investigates NFL
That wasn't all the DEA was looking for among teams interviewed on Sunday. Medical staffs are required to have "readily retrievable" documentation that says which players received which drugs and which staff members made the prescriptions and distributed the medicine. Along those lines, they were also checking into allegations that teams were issuing medications to players without a prescription and if drugs were being distributed by trainers or others not licensed to handle or dispense the drugs.
Were the 49ers, Buccaneers and Seahawks the only teams that got inspected?
Those are the only three teams that were actually named in reports on Sunday, but there were some suggestions that other teams got a visit from the DEA too. Regardless of which teams were inspected, the entire league is under scrutiny. The agency is looking at the issue league-wide, examining practices among all 32 teams.
Did the DEA find anything?
Nothing was reported. However, it should be noted that these inspections were done without a warrant. They were "administrative" only, according to reports.
Is someone going to get arrested?
No. At this point, the DEA is only looking into potential improprieties and violations of the CSA. No arrests will be made, according to CBS Sports, and it's being describe as an "administrative" action to determine teams' compliance with the law. A spokesperson for the agency refused to speculate on what the agency could do next if it finds teams have violated the laws for handling and prescribing these kinds of drugs.
Has anything like this ever happened to the NFL before?
Yes. In 2010, the DEA raided the San Diego Chargers and found that the team's doctor at the time, David Chao, had issued more than 100 prescriptions to himself. The Saints were forced to pay a fine for mishandling medications at the team facility after assistant coach Joe Vitt was caught on camera stealing medications.
An exhaustive report on the issue from ESPN's "Outside the Lines" in 2011 found painkiller abuse rampant among a significant portion of retired NFL players.
What happens next?
The DEA was tight-lipped about what would happen next in their investigation. Reports from Sunday suggest that other teams will get a DEA inspection of their own.
Prescription drug abuse, addictive narcotic painkillers in particular, have come under increasing levels of scrutiny from the DEA and other law enforcement agencies. Abuse and addiction have "skyrocketed," according to a DEA spokesperson, and that's led to a rise in heroin use.
The lawsuit by former players is still ongoing, representing approximately 1,300 players. The NFL tried to have the suit dismissed last month, arguing that the issue was strictly between players and teams, not a league matter. The court has yet to make a ruling on the league's request, and is now waiting for the NFLPA to clarify its position before making a decision.
It's important to note again that this is a league-wide investigation, with all 32 teams expected to be scrutinized. Unlike the isolated incidents with the Chargers and Saints in the past, the agency's findings could have major ramifications throughout the NFL.