In the six-part podcast series Gladiator: Aaron Hernandez and Football Inc., The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team — best known for their groundbreaking investigation into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church — took an in-depth look at the life and death of the young football player who was convicted of murder and took his own life in jail. Using original interviews, as well as taped prison phone calls between Hernandez and his friends and family, the team dove into issues of mental illness, abuse, and CTE, a debilitating brain condition thought to be caused by repeated head injuries. On Monday, producers released a “bonus episode,” exploring the epidemic of pain — and the overuse of pain medication — in the NFL, and football culture at large.
Hernandez’s former team, the New England Patriots, is playing in the Super Bowl this coming weekend. By the time the championship game comes around, podcast host Bob Hohler says, pretty much every player is injured and in pain. But they keep playing anyway, often with the help of addictive opioids.
“After the initial run of the podcast was completed, the Spotlight team got another big batch of jail calls from Hernandez’s stay at the Bristol Jail,” Marshall Lewy, CCO of the podcast’s publisher Wondery, told Rolling Stone in an email. “During this stay, he talked a lot with former teammates, and they talked about the game and the subject of injuries and pain medications, as well as how much marijuana Aaron smoked. Playing through pain and marijuana use were both topics we touched on in the original series, but we didn’t get to look at as in-depth as we did the effects of CTE. So it seemed like an interesting topic to cover in more detail as an additional episode.”
Lewy also said they’re open to additional bonus episodes if they find specific topics that would be interesting to add to the conversation. “We have some ideas and leads, but nothing firm just yet,” he said.
The episode maintains the connected to Hernandez’s story with snippets of the recorded conversations from his time in jail, but mostly, it zooms out to take a look at the larger issue of how much pain football players are in, and the dangerous drugs that are handed out like candy.
Nearly 90 percent of retired NFL players say they are in pain on a daily basis, Hohler says—they’re also four times more likely to abuse opioids than the general population.
Retired player Ryan O’Callaghan says on the podcast that he was once prescribed Vicodin nine times in one month by team doctors, and that all a player had to do was ask and they’d get opioids. After surgery to treat a shoulder injury, he was prescribed Dilauded, which led to an addiction. Always recovering from one injury or another, he said he felt like opioids were his only choice, and that team doctors used to hand them out on the airplane when the team was traveling to and from games. “They wouldn’t let you smoke marijuana,” he said, “but they’d let you take all the pain killers you wanted.” He used pot to manage his pain during his college football career, but the NFL has a strict drug testing policy, so he had to stop smoking, using “more and more” opioids instead.
Players are still officially banned from smoking, but according to the podcast, many do anyway. Hernandez said in a recorded phone call that he smoked before every game.
In 2016, Eugene Monroe became the first active player to speak out publicly and urge the NFL to change its policy disallowing players from using marijuana to manage pain, at least in states that have legalized it. He has since retired, and gone into the medical marijuana business. He argued on the podcast that marijuana should be an option for players, especially since they deal with so many more injuries than the average population, and taking opioids for every one is just not a practical or safe solution.
But Thomas Gill, a former team doctor for the Patriots, told Hohler that cannabis would negatively affect performance on the field, and therefore should not be used by active players. It could be an option for retired players, he said, arguing that their situation is totally different. Monroe called this suggestion “out of touch,” arguing that retired players who are in constant pain and battling addictions got that way because of how their pain was managed while they were in the league.