Calvin Johnson usually stayed out of the headlines during his nine seasons with the Detroit Lions, but he didn’t bite his tongue in an interview for ESPN’s E:60, and spoke frankly about concussions and the misuse of painkillers in the NFL.
Johnson, 30, finished his career on a streak of six consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl, but cited the wear and tear of the league as the reason for his surprisingly early retirement.
"To be out there actually doing it every day, you know -- the pain to do it," Johnson told Michael Smith for an interview that debuts on Thursday night. "So I'm just like -- and you can't take Toradol and pain medicine every day, you know. You gotta give that stuff a rest, and that was one thing I wasn't willing to do."
The NFL has faced previous accusations of abusing painkillers and is currently battling a lawsuit filed by more than 1,500 former players that alleges coaches and trainers pushed them to return to action despite injuries, peddling painkillers and lying about the aftereffects. Johnson corroborated many of those claims in his interview with Smith.
"If you were hurting, then you could get 'em, you know," Johnson told Smith. "It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, 'My ankle hurt,' you know. 'I need, I need it. I can't, I can't play without it,' or something like that. It was simple. That's how easy it was to get 'em, you know. So, if you were dependent on 'em, they were readily available."
Johnson underwent surgeries for ankle, finger and knee injuries during his NFL career, and also told Smith that he had his "fair share" of concussions. He said head injuries "happen like every other, every third play" in the NFL.
While he didn’t directly accuse trainers and coaches of mishandling players, he described the conflict of interest that exists and can create problems.
In his first extensive interview since retiring in March, Calvin Johnson speaks candidly on player safety in the NFL pic.twitter.com/9toTYQUReM— E:60 (@E60) July 6, 2016
"The team doctor, the team trainers, they work for the team. And I love 'em, you know," Johnson said. "They're some good people, you know. They want to see you do good. But at the same time, they work for the team, you know. They're trying to do whatever they can to get you back on the field and make your team look good. So if it's not gonna make the team look good, or if you're not gonna be on the field, then they're tryin' to do whatever they can to make that happen."
Johnson’s comments are not groundbreaking or unique, but add another high-profile voice to an increasingly loud chorus of players raising concerns about the NFL’s medical culture.