Because it was the defendant in the case, the National Hockey League was the audience for the statement U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman issued after he dismissed a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of former New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard on Monday.
Still, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and any other sport in which painkillers are used to put players back on the field of play should also take notice.
“Although judgment is entered in the NHL’s favor,” Feinerman wrote, “this opinion should not be read to commend how the NHL handled Boogaard’s particular circumstances – or the circumstances of other NHL players who over the years have suffered injuries from on-ice play.”
In 2011, Boogaard, 28, died in what was ruled to have been an accidental overdose of pain medications and alcohol. His parents filed the suit in 2013, contending that the NHL knew or should have known that their son was not complying with the prescribed treatment at a treatment facility.
They also claimed the league had promoted the violence that contributed to the numerous concussions that led Boogaard to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, as an autopsy showed.
In a 20-page opinion, the judge ruled that Boogaard’s parents had not proved that the NHL was negligent by promoting violence or hiding evidence about the long-term effect of concussions.
His ruling, however, was a warning to the NHL that it will not automatically have immunity in future cases that might be filed by former players or their families in relation to serious medical injuries that result from playing in the league.
With greater attention being paid to the connection to prescription painkilling drugs and the devastating opioid addiction plague that is affecting the country, the actions of sports teams in regards to administering painkillers to players is going to come under more scrutiny.
We know that painkilling drugs are a part of sports. Athletes, especially those in high-collision sports such as hockey and football, could not go out game after game without using them at some point.
We also know that teams are the initial prescribers of these drugs.
To what extent they are pushed remains an in-house secret.
There have been too many incidents of past and current players becoming addicted to painkilling medication for any league to credibly say it does not understand the connection.
I appreciate that there is a high level of personal responsibility involved in this. Ultimately, it would be difficult to place much responsibility on a team or sports league if an individual did not seek help for an addiction or follow a treatment plan.
It is, however, called “addiction” for a reason. The dependency on something, especially a narcotic, can become so overwhelming that rational decisions do not apply.
Every athlete knows that the biggest threat to job security is the inability to take the field. Playing through some degree of pain is expected in every sport. Teams are generally the first stop for acquiring the medications to make that happen.
With that in mind, it could be argued that teams, in a sense, use the threat of losing a job as coercion for the athletes to take drugs to which they might eventually become addicted.
Couldn’t that been viewed as promoting and facilitating drug use?
Feinerman made it clear in his statement that, while he did not find the NHL responsible in the case of Boogaard, a different player and slightly different circumstances could alter that.
Because fans tend to overlook the collateral suffering that pro athletes might go through to perform each game, it makes it easy for teams to act loosey-goosey when it comes to administering painkillers.
Feinerman’s statement is a warning to all leagues to think a little harder about their responsibilities and potential liabilities.