Ganja & The Gridiron
The National Football League (NFL) has a marijuana problem – not allowing its use by the players when it could be the best medicine for them.
Eugene Monroe was, until recently, an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL. Lineman like him protect the quarterback and block for runners; they are guaranteed to be hit on nearly every play. They are the most important part of a football team yet get the least fanfare of any position played. Normally, you’d never hear about Eugene Monroe in the headlines.
Except that Eugene Monroe was an active NFL player calling for the league to open up to medical marijuana use by its players.
Back in March, Monroe unloaded on the league for its ban on medical marijuana. “Let’s research how cannabinoids may help curb traumatic brain injury,” he wrote on Twitter, adding, “smoking weed just may protect your brain.”
Monroe even called out the commissioner of the league, Roger Goodell, for “[lying] to me at the Super Bowl” over the league’s stance that “there’s no medical vs recreational distinction.”
Since then, Monroe has contributed $80,000 for medical marijuana research and continued speaking out for more tolerance from the league. As a reward for his stance, the Baltimore Ravens first distanced themselves from him in the media, then dropped him from the team.
Monroe, a talented player in a key position, has now retired from the NFL after seven seasons. He says he can still play at the top of his game, but he worries about his diminishing memory. His four-year-old daughter tells him, “Daddy, you don’t remember anything!”
Despite 20 of its 32 teams playing in states where medical marijuana is now legal, the NFL still considers it a banned substance for its players. Now players are beginning to fight back and demand the NFL end its ban on medical cannabis use. Evidence of marijuana’s efficacy in treating head trauma and chronic pain is emerging. Players are increasingly aware of the long-term health effects of opioid painkillers and want a safer herbal option.
Getting Your Bell Rung
Jim McMahon was the “punky QB” who led the 1985 Chicago Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX. Players were smoking pot back then, but weren’t as informed on its medical use, McMahon told Freedom Leaf at a recent marijuana conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
“[Coaches] used to just yell at us,” McMahon said, “’you bunch of pot smokers – that’s why you need water.’”
Now McMahon’s former coach, Mike Ditka, has come around to supporting medical marijuana access for players. He’s joined a group called the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition that consists of players, coaches, doctors, and others seeking to educate the NFL about the potential of medical cannabis in the league.
“It definitely helps for me,” McMahon continued. “because I’ll get shooting pains, I’ll go weeks at a time not getting out of bed, and that’s when I know I’ve got to go back and see the doc.”
McMahon is suffering from many chronic pain conditions thanks to years of punishing hits. Chief among them is head and neck pain brought about from countless concussions, or as McMahon puts it “getting your bell rung,” a euphemism used by football coaches all across the country at every level to discount the severity of the head trauma.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
When your brain smashes up against your skull, there is a tearing and shearing of brain tissue that has been named chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s a disease that can only be diagnosed via autopsy and was first discovered by Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2002. Will Smith played Dr. Omalu in the movie Concussion, which failed at the box office but succinctly portrayed the battle to get the NFL to address the issue.
Sufferers of CTE experience terrible pain, depression, suicidal ideation, and psychotic breaks. Omalu first discovered CTE in the brain of Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman who battled bouts of rage and depression. Ten years later, CTE was found in the brain of Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, who murdered his girlfriend and shot himself in front of his coaches in 2012. CTE also claimed Hall-of-Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide that same year. Seau shot himself in the chest like Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson had done the year before. Duerson had left a note asking for his brain to be autopsied and CTE was found.
So far, over ninety deceased NFL players have been found to have suffered from CTE. How concussions proceed into full blown CTE is not yet well understood. What is beginning to be understood, however, is how cannabis may be the best preventative measure for the effects of concussion in the first place.
Concussions and Cannabis
Following a concussion, there is a post-concussion syndrome that causes headaches, dizziness, irritability, insomnia, memory problems, and sensitivity to noise and light. The symptoms can develop within the first week following the concussion and can last three months to a year or longer.
Recent research has shown that cannabidiol (CBD), one of the non-psychoactive constituents of cannabis, provides a neuroprotective effect against brain damage from concussion. Use of CBD has also been shown to reduce brain swelling and inflammation after concussion.
But as the research continues to validate what many players know from trial and error, the NFL refuses to budge on its anti-marijuana policies. Commissioner Goodell last February told reporters, “It’s an NFL policy and we believe it’s the correct policy, for now, in the best interest of our players and the long-term health of our players.”
When pressed by reporters about players like Jim McMahon speaking out for medical cannabis and the recent advances in research on cannabis and concussion, Goodell demurred, saying, “I don’t distinguish between the medical marijuana and marijuana issue in the context of my previous answer… Yes, I agree there [have] been changes, but not significant enough changes that our medical personnel have changed their view.”
“For Roger Goodell to say ‘we’re following the science’ – they need to lead the science,” Marvin Washington, former defensive end for the New York Jets, told Freedom Leaf. “They need to research this.” Washington then proceeded to list the painkillers– “the Naprosyn, the Oxycontin, the Percocets” – that are handed out by NFL team doctors instead of “something that’s natural, something that has no negative side effects, [and] no addiction problems.”
In 2014, the NFL settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit by over 4,500 former players over the issue of concussion. The players claimed the league had failed to inform the players of the true dangers involved. The settlement metes out some compensation for the players but amounted to a small fraction of the $10 billion business that is the NFL.
Painkillers vs. Pot
Even if an NFL player avoids a concussion, there’s no way he can avoid pain. For NFL teams, keeping the player on the field is paramount. NFL team doctors know this and supply their players with a litany of powerful and addictive opioid painkillers to address their injuries.
Back in 1996, legendary former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre was one of the most high-profile players to publicly admit to a problem with opioid painkiller addiction. By 2014, former linebacker Scott Fujita was telling the Washington Post team doctors gave him “the craziest big pill bottle you’ve ever seen” full of at least 125 Percocets. Former offensive lineman Rex Hadnot explained how he received Toradol injections, a powerful anti-inflammatory, once a week for nine years. The FDA recommends using Toradol for no more than five days due to risk of kidney damage.
Now over 1,500 former players have filed a class-action lawsuit that claims, “NFL teams and their training staffs dispensed powerful drugs while misleading them about the health risks” and that NFL team doctors, “were routinely and indiscriminately [giving out] powerful painkillers, often without prescriptions or even a cursory exam, to mask pain and injuries and get [players] back on the field without regard for their long-term health.” The suit has survived an initial motion to dismiss by the NFL.
The No Fun League
The NFL keeps marijuana on its banned substances list not because it is a performance enhancing drug, but merely because it’s still a federally-illegal drug. The NFL markets heavily to young people and doesn’t want to be portrayed as soft on drugs. It’s also no coincidence that the biggest advertisers on NFL games include beer and pharmaceutical companies that would face direct competition from greater access to marijuana.
For years, the league maintained one of the strictest limits for drug testing marijuana among its players. Just 15 nanograms of marijuana metabolite in a urine sample was enough to fail the test. In 2014, the league upped the limit to 35 nanograms. Regardless, both these minute amounts of metabolite can be detected in a cannabis consumer days or even weeks after the effect of cannabis has worn off.
Other sports leagues have recognized this and use higher metabolite limits in their testing. Major League Baseball requires 50 nanograms for a failed test. The World Anti-Doping Agency, which tests Olympic athletes, raised its threshold from 15 nanograms to 150, arguing that would help prevent catching athletes who weren’t actually high during competition. The Nevada State Athletic Commission, which sanctions many professional fights, raised their standard from 50 nanograms to 150 as well. Only the NCAA and NBA maintain a stricter policy. The NBA’s threshold is just 15 nanograms and the NCAA lowered its threshold from 15 nanograms to just 5 nanograms in 2014, further impacting the college football players who may seek a career in the NFL. Only the National Hockey League doesn’t even test for marijuana metabolites.
Failing the NFL’s drug test has serious consequences for a player. This year the annual testing began on April 20 (ha ha) and continued through August 9. Once a player passes that one annual test, he is unlikely to be tested again, unless he raises a red flag through a marijuana arrest or public incident. Even joking on Twitter about the 4/20 holiday can earn a player a “random” request for a drug test sample, as Indianapolis Colts’ punter Pat McAfee found out this year on 4/21.
The NFL’s substance abuse policy, agreed to by the NFL Players Association and in effect until 2021, specifies a series of increasing penalties for marijuana test failures, beginning with a mandatory substance abuse program for first-time offenders. Subsequent offenses earn suspensions and loss of pay, like the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl MVP defensive end Von Miller, who sat out 6 games in 2013, and the 10 games then-league-leading Clevleand Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon sat out in 2014.
The NFL’s policy also harms the careers of athletes coming out of college before they’ve even set foot on the gridiron. Some coaches still see marijuana use as a character issue and a mark of an inferior player. Laremy Tunsil, a potential number-one draft choice who played offensive tackle at Ole Miss, saw his draft position plummet all the way down to number thirteen this year, meaning the difference of millions of dollars in his NFL contract.
In a sense, marijuana testing is a mechanism for getting some highly-talented players at cheaper prices, like future Hall-of-Fame former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, who also saw his draft stock drop following publicized marijuana incidents in college. Moss recently commented on Tunsil’s fall to CBS Sports, saying, “the NFL just needs to loosen up the rules,” and that “when you are caught on camera smoking something… that’s not a character issue. I think if a guy is out there driving under the influence, beating women or doing something that will really hurt others, that’s where you have to be able to draw the line.”
For some players, they’ll make the choice to try synthetic marijuana. These dangerous concoctions are prized for their ability to provide the high without failing the drug test, which doesn’t detect the synthetic metabolites. But these untested drugs for lab use only create a wide range of reactions, from a pleasant high to psychotic episodes. Some high-profile incidents featuring players using synthetic pot include New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones, who stumbled into a police station early in the morning this January, complaining of a bad reaction to the drug.
The NFL Must Lead
The time has come for the NFL to adopt a sensible policy on cannabis use by its players. With possibly nine states voting on legalization or medical marijuana this fall, the NFL could find itself with three-quarters of its teams playing in medical marijuana states and one-quarter of its teams playing in legal marijuana states. The country could have 30 medical marijuana states and 9 adult-legalization states by time the next Super Bowl is played.
With concern over concussions and CTE, painkillers and addiction, and needlessly affecting the careers of dozens of young men over marijuana – a substance a majority of Americans in ten straight polls have agreed should be legal – the NFL is actively harming its players by not offering the safer alternative of cannabis.