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For Physicians, The Ethics Of Treating Athletes


Several hundred pro-football players say that the National Football League supplied them with painkillers, risky narcotics, to keep them playing, despite injuries. Some say they weren't told of the seriousness of those injuries. Others say they became addicted to the drugs and they have sued.


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn't yet commented. He told reporters yesterday that the league's lawyers have not yet been able to review the lawsuit. Among the best-known ex-players who are plaintiffs are Jim McMahon and Richard Dent, both former stars for the Chicago Bears.

SIEGEL: Well, joining us to talk about the ethics of treating athletes is Dr. Michael George, a Houston orthopedist who has been a team physician for several colleges, high schools, an arena football team and an AAA minor league baseball team. Dr. George, welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Tell us first, the ethics of giving a player a painkiller before a game, a player who otherwise might be into much pain to play.

GEORGE: Well, we have to be careful what we are describing as painkillers. So there's narcotic pain medicines and there's anti-inflammatory medications, and then there's more simple medications like Tylenol.

SIEGEL: Well, there's a charge here of narcotics being prescribed. And first, just the concept of prescription. As the team physician, is a doctor more or less obliged to give a painkiller to any player who says I want to get out there?

GEORGE: Well, the doctor has an ethical responsibility to care for the athlete as their patient. So, in general, doctors are never obligated to prescribe medications just because the patient asks for them. The doctor has to evaluate the risks and benefits and then determine what the most appropriate treatment would be.

SIEGEL: Given the history of the litigation over concussions, which precedes this current lawsuit about pain medications, do you suspect that there's been a real problem in the National Football League in treating players in a way that is mindful, first, of their health and only secondarily of their ability to play next Sunday or their value to the team?

GEORGE: Well, I think the knowledge base has increased so much that it's a little bit difficult to say were these athletes being treated at the absolute best way that we know now, were they being treated that way 20 years ago, because they didn't have that sort of knowledge. So the studies that have been done on concussions, especially, over the last five years or so have really changed the way that we think about things. So I think that those athletes were being treated with the best information that medicine had to offer at that time. And now in retrospect, it may not be how we would treat them in this day and age.

SIEGEL: What do you say to the skeptic who's listening and says, look, the doctor's working for the team, everyone knows, you know, injuries in pro football, millions in Vegas move on whether somebody's playing or not playing because of his knee this Sunday. The pressure is obviously to get those guys out there, come what may.

GEORGE: Well, the physicians that are chosen to take care of these professional athletes theoretically are at the top of their profession. Just like if you go to a doctor who has a good reputation and you trust them, they may or may not make the right decision. But you have to trust that these people who are chosen are going to make the most ethical decisions that they can.

SIEGEL: Dr. George, thank you very much for talking with us.

GEORGE: Thank you, I appreciate it.

SIEGEL: Dr. George, who's a Houston orthopedist, is co-author of an article, "Ethics in Sports Medicine," which was published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.