It’s an all-natural painkiller without the addictive power of synthetic ones. Some reports indicate that more than fifty percent of NFL players use it. Fifteen of 16 players surveyed say they use it because they believe in its medicinal benefits. One of those players even credits it with preventing him from committing suicide. But marijuana, this non-addictive natural painkiller, is still banned by the NFL.
Being a professional athlete has become more than just an occupation. The modern era of sports has, for example, turned today’s football athletes – who begin training in early childhood, are salivated over by college scouts before learning algebra, and are bought, sold and released by their teams’ owners - into modern day gladiators. It would be hard to disagree, however, that the average athletes today are superior to athletes in earlier eras. Advancements in medicine and technology have resulted in new and improved approaches to an athlete’s training, nutrition, physical development, and health. The widely-publicized, positive developments include new diet plans, lifting exercises, and specialized sports training programs. Nothing, however, has been more valuable than the knowledge we have gained regarding player health and safety. Unfortunately, a main focus of sports organizations has not been the long-term health of the players. They are focused instead on finding the quickest possible way to get these players to return to action after suffering an injury. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the realm of professional football where violence and aggression dominate the sport.
Devastating injuries - concussions, ligament tears, spinal damage, broken bones, and paralysis - are risks that accompany a typical day at work for professional football athletes. While these dangers of the game have been public knowledge since the game was invented, the long-term health risk that is associated primarily with concussions has only in recent years become a topic of public concern. A number of former NFL players have taken their own life because of mental problems that their families and doctors attribute to the constant head trauma suffered by these men during their careers. After initially ignoring reports linking concussions to long-term brain problems, the NFL has now initiated efforts to alter its rules in the interest of player safety. Some of these include penalties and fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and a nationwide campaign to educate coaches in all football leagues on how to teach their players proper and safe tackling methods. While it is commendable that the NFL instituted these new rules as an attempt to protect their players, this small and reactionary attempt at a long-term solution regarding player safety is a tiny iota of what is actually needed and is indicative of the conflicting interests of profit versus the well-being of the players.
You may be asking what does all of this have to do with marijuana being banned from the NFL? Well, bear with me here, but… basically everything. In recent years there have been countless news reports of the harmful effects of prescription painkiller abuse by current and former players. Prescription painkiller abuse has resulted in lost careers, problems with the law and even death. There have also been numerous reports regarding the medical benefits that researchers have found associated with marijuana. Medical research shows that marijuana is helpful in treating glaucoma, improving lung health, reversing the carcinogenic effects of tobacco, controlling epileptic seizures, decreasing anxiety, and slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, a “recent study in the journal Cerebral Cortex showed that in mice, marijuana lessened the bruising of the brain and helped with healing mechanisms after a traumatic injury.” (Business Insider) This study indicates that marijuana may help lessen the effects of concussions and head trauma.
The NFL players themselves realize the medical benefits of marijuana. Despite the NFL ban, a number of players use it after games and intense practices to alleviate pain and cope with anxiety. Jamal Anderson, a former player, believes “at least 50 percent” of NFL players use marijuana and he adds that the players “know it helps them with concussions” (Bleacher report). In an interview with ESPN’s “First Take”, Ryan Clark, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive back, gave another reason for marijuana use:
"Guys feel like, 'If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.' Guys look at this as a more natural way to heal themselves, to relieve stress and also to medicate themselves for pain." (Cimini, ESPN)
In fact, retired player, Nate Jackson, credits marijuana for his ability to avoid addiction to the pain pills that were recklessly distributed when he played, and for his being able to exit the game with his mind intact. (Bleacher report). Former linebacker Scott Fujita has highlighted the dangers of painkillers as well. He explained that he generally tried to avoid painkillers because he was worried about creating a dependency on these drugs. However, given the NFL’s extensive use of prescription drugs, he could not avoid the use of certain drugs such as Toradol, Vicodin, and Percocet.
Given the medical benefits and the non-addictive nature of marijuana, marijuana is a safer alternative than prescription painkillers. A recent Washington Post article, entitled “Marijuana may be even safer than previously thought, researchers say”, highlights the finding that “by a wide margin, cannabis is the least risky recreational drug.” Despite this finding and the known harmful effects of prescription drug addiction, prescription painkillers remain morally and ethically acceptable by the league while marijuana is continually vilified with its use resulting in fines and suspensions.
“The NFL drug policy has come under even more scrutiny [in the past year], after the NFL handed down a season-long suspension of Browns receiver Josh Gordon for multiple violations of the NFL substance-abuse policy. That suspension, especially when juxtaposed against the two-game ban Ray Rice received for domestic violence, has led some to say the league's priorities are out of whack.” (Huffington Post).
Every year a new state is proposing legislation that would make marijuana legal. Oregon, Colorado, Washington, and Alaska have already made this momentous leap and 23 other states have medical marijuana programs. It is time for the NFL not only to listen to its players, but also to give serious attention and consideration to medical marijuana research. On the basis of the positive benefits proven through research, the NFL should “follow medicine” and experiment, in states where legal, with using marijuana for pain relief. At the very least the NFL should cease imposing penalties for marijuana use and cease testing for marijuana.