Why you should care

Because it’s been a bad enough year for the NFL — and if Owens succeeds, it’s about to get way worse.

Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mel Owens transforms from a measured and soft-spoken civil litigator into a fiery gladiator reminiscent of his days as a hard-hitting linebacker with the Los Angeles Rams.

His trigger? Discussing an 85-page complaint — Richard Dent, et al., v. National Football League — that he and six other attorneys filed earlier this year and which they hope to get certified as a class-action lawsuit against the NFL. More than 1,300 former players have already joined the suit, and in it, Owens and the other lawyers argue that for decades the league “intentionally, recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, substituting players’ health for profit.” Take away the legalese and the NFL, as Owens puts it, is accused of “poisoning these guys over their careers.”

All of which are pretty harsh words for a case that in short order may get thrown for a big loss. Or it could move forward. The league’s motion to dismiss will be the subject of a hearing today in San Francisco. For its part, the NFL, through spokesman Brian McCarthy, declined to comment.

The drugs allowed injured players to stay on the field, but at times, the suit says, led to worse long-term injuries.

When it comes to this case, Owens is in a unique position as a representative for NFL players, who are requesting a trust fund to keep pace with future medical charges — plus, they want punitive and compensatory damages. For starters, the 55-year-old Californian spent a decade playing on the Rams and is a personal victim as well, says Steven D. Silverman, an attorney in Baltimore who represents plaintiffs in the case. (If the court grants class-action status, Owens would be part of the aggrieved group.) Most recently, and for more than a decade now, Owens has been practicing sports-related workers’ compensation law, so he’s also “in a unique position to understand the injuries that our guys have experienced,” says Silverman. Those injuries, the suit says, include everything from enlarged heart and nerve damage to stage 3 renal failure.

A Detroit native, Owens grew into an All-Big Ten player at the University of Michigan under the legendary Bo Schembechler. He made the most of his football career in the 1980s with the Rams, where every year, he says, players underwent a preseason physical exam but never got walked through their results in detail. Individuals were given painkillers — including opioids, which the complainants say created drug dependencies — or anti-inflammatories. The drugs allowed injured players to stay on the field, but at times, the suit says, led to worse long-term injuries.

football player on the field during a game.

Mel Owens (No. 58) with his Los Angeles Rams teammates

Source George Gojkovich/Getty

But critics note that is only one side of the story. When properly administered, of course, painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs can provide real relief from the constant pounding NFL players must endure every week. And though 1,300 players have joined so far, pointedly, not all former players support the suit. In fact, after news of it broke, Brian Baldinger, who played with the Dallas Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles before serving as a host and analyst for NFL Network, said in one interview, “I believe we knew what [medications] we were taking and spirit we were taking them in. I think we all knew what we were doing regardless of whether the doctors signed off on it or not.” (Baldinger declined to elaborate on his comments when reached by OZY.)

It’s certainly a tough adversary when you go against the NFL.

— Alan Milstein, lawyer

And some argue players aren’t so naive — like Mitch Abrams, a New Jersey-based sports psychologist who has worked with both NFL teams and individual players. “If a player wants a drug, he’s going to get it,” he says.

Ultimately, for Owens, a herniated disk in his back ended his own football career. Following his retirement in 1990, he enrolled at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and built a practice specializing in workers’ compensation. The career switch didn’t shock his former Rams teammate Jackie Slater, a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee: “He was a bright guy, trying to stay current with things going on around him and in the world,” says Slater. “I’m not surprised he became an attorney.”

former professional football player outside his office after retirement from the game.

Former NFL player Mel Owens

Owens says he has seen firsthand the toll that football takes on players — and he wants the league to pay its fair share for that pain. The suit alleges players were rarely, if ever, informed of the drugs’ risks and that it was cheaper for the NFL to give players drugs and send them back on the field than to increase roster sizes to allow injured players to rest and heal properly. “I was a player,” he says. “If I can lend a voice or a hand to players who cannot help themselves, I’m going to help.”

But it’s one tough play for tough-guy Owens, who once ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, during an off-season with the Rams. Legal experts, including New Jersey attorney Alan Milstein, warn that his case may not truly be a class-action suit, meaning it might be limited to the experience of certain players and may not actually gather the collective momentum it needs. And the likelihood of success? The NFL, of course, has vast resources at its disposal to defend this case. “It’s certainly a tough adversary when you go against the NFL,” says Milstein, who challenged and beat the NFL’s minimum-age requirement — only to have it overturned on appeal.

Nathan Siegel contributed reporting.

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