Irsay drug problem, what did the NFL know? - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

Irsay drug problem, what did the NFL know?

Roger Harvey/Eyewitness News Investigators

Indianapolis, June 16 - In a year-long investigation, the Eyewitness News Investigators documented a pattern of prescription drug abuse - including overdoses and stints in rehab - by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.

Irsay’s problems came at a time when the National Football League was stepping up its efforts to punish substance abuse by players.  So what did the NFL do about Irsay?

In response to our investigation, the league last year confirmed that Irsay had spoken about his problem with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue "on several recent occasions."

But Eyewitness News has learned the league's knowledge of Irsay's drug abuse goes back much farther than just last year. In fact, key NFL officials, including Tagliabue, were aware of the problems as early as 1995.

They were aware because of Rene Conder, a former Indianapolis police detective who now for the first time is speaking in detail about her investigation.

Conder was the prescription drug investigator for the Indianapolis Police Department in 1995, when she began looking at Irsay's behavior as part of an investigation into Dr. James Dickerson. Dickerson had written Irsay numerous prescriptions for powerful opiates like Lorcet.

The questionable prescriptions raised a red flag with pharmacies, which notified Conder.  Her investigation that year ended with Dickerson losing his license and Irsay being urged into rehab.

Now, in an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News, Conder said she kept league officials informed of her activities every step of the way.

"As I moved, they knew about it," Conder said.  "You don't go into another person's jurisdiction without letting them know you are there."

Conder said she had extensive discussions about Irsay with Bill Mattingly.  Mattingly is often seen on the Colts sideline in his role as the NFL's Indianapolis security chief.  Conder's discussions with Mattingly took place both in 1995 and later in 1998, when Irsay’s problems surfaced again. Conder said Mattingly told her he kept Tagliabue informed about all the details.

"I kept them apprised of everything," she said.

In 1995, she said, Mattingly told her Tagliabue had a plan to get Irsay quietly into the famed Betty Ford Center in southern California. 

"I was informed of the plan when we went in and did the intervention in 1995, and that was that there were arrangements that had been made and people in New York who were waiting for a phone call," Conder said.

Conder met twice with Irsay, once at his home and once at the Colts complex.  She said he didn't take the league up on the Betty Ford offer;  instead he chose a local program.  But something else came out of that 1995 episode.  Conder said for the first time the NFL established controls over how narcotics are maintained at team facilities around the country.

League officials, including Tagliabue, have refused to comment on Irsay.  In New York last year, his spokesman, Greg Aiello, denied any knowledge of Irsay's problems.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," he said.

Irsay has also declined repeated requests for an interview.

His struggle with substance abuse continued at least until last year.  During that time, Irsay continued running his team without repercussion.

Critics say the NFL's lenience with Irsay exposes a double standard by a league that prides itself for one of the toughest drug policies in sports. Numerous players have been caught and punished under the rules, including former Colt Shawn King and Julius Peppers, the second pick in the 2002 draft.

"He who holds the gold tends to make the rules, so the owners are holding themselves above everybody else in this enterprise," said Jim Litke, a national sports columnist for the Associated Press.

After Eyewitness News’ investigation last year, Litke criticized the league for treating an owner differently than players who violate the rules.  He said while NFL players are reluctant to talk publicly, he’s spoken to many who say the league’s stance on these matters is hypocritical.

"The owners have decided that they will deal with their matters internally and yet, after a certain point, a player's personal matters become public, and that's a very difficult standard to try to permeate," Litke said.  "It just doesn't seem fair."

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