Calling an NFL season a “grind” is a major understatement. Players dish out hits that can range up to and over 1,500 pounds of force, and between tackles and blocks the average player can expect somewhere between 10 to 50 collisions per game. As average player size has increased over time, career expectancy has correspondingly dropped; running backs, who play one of the positions that takes the largest amount of regular abuse, have an average career length of just over three years and commonly retire in their mid-20s.
Pain is constant over the course of each season. Players are certainly compensated well for their troubles, but it’s a heavy burden on their bodies that very often continues after their playing days are over. A recent study out of Washington University found that a little over half of players said they used pain medications while playing, with almost one out of three self-reporting usage that would be considered abuse. More than half also received their pills from a non-medical source. Of those that obtained their pills from doctors, 15 percent were using them at a rate that exceeded their prescriptions.
This ties into an overall national epidemic of opioid pain pill abuse. Opioids are highly effective at managing pain, but also highly addictive. Medical cannabis represents a viable alternative that can provide similar levels of pain treatment with a vastly reduced risk of addiction, but as of right now, it’s forbidden under any circumstances by the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
The View From The Field
It’s fair to say that there is broad support for marijuana among the community of players. A 2016 league survey found that just shy of two-thirds of current NFL players support the use of medical cannabis for pain management. Players, coaches and staff who are currently active on team rosters are among the most cautious people with their words in public, so it’s difficult to get more of a bead on current levels of support than anonymous surveys. In 2014, both commissioner Roger Goodell and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll did publicly express the view that the NFL should be open to exploring the use of medical marijuana, however. Numerous former players have also spoken out in favor, such as former quarterback Jake Plummer and tackle Eugene Moore, who are spearheading efforts to research how it might benefit players.
Regardless of this substantial level of support, the collective bargaining agreement that the Player’s Association currently operates under specifically forbids its use. Representatives for the NFLPA have been looking into medical marijuana as part of their ongoing research into pain management measures, however. Thus far, the NFLPA has issued no new statements on medical marijuana, but did recently propose a “less punitive” approach when it comes to consequences for recreational use.
The Over-Under On Change
NFLPA hesitancy to seriously approach the medical issue is reflective of the broader social and political situation. The primary problem is the continuing status of cannabis as a Schedule I illegal drug at the federal level, a designation in which it is formally defined as having “high risk for addiction” and “no medical value.” In spite of increasing legalization at the state level, major organizations like the NFL will always be gun-shy about giving any sort of approval to a substance that is highly illegal at the federal level and that the vast majority of insurance companies will therefore refuse to touch.
There’s also the issue of medical research. While initial scientific testing results are highly promising, there still isn’t enough of a body of evidence to conclusively declare that medical cannabis is just as good or better than opioids. The Schedule I designation is also an issue here, making it too difficult for adequate testing to take place. In lieu of this evidence, the prevailing attitude of prescribing physicians remains technically correct, at least from a legal standpoint; opioids are a Schedule II drug and can be legally prescribed, and rates of addiction are relatively low when doctor’s orders are followed, so they’re chosen over cannabis. The trouble with opioids, of course, is in keeping people from exceeding their prescriptions, which is where the potential for addiction skyrockets.
If the NFL ever does approve the use of medical marijuana, it’s likely going to restrict it to teams and players that reside in states where it is legalized. That would prevent players from legally taking their medicine with them for away games, as they would be violating federal law by bringing it across state lines. Given all the legal complications while it remains a Schedule I drug, the best players can hope for in the near future is for some of the teeth to be taken out of the punitive process when they test positive.
However, unlike current NFL players, you can get a Cannabis based CBD oil from the Hemp plant and it’s showing to be just as effective as medical marijuana for a myriad of common, and more serious, ailments. In fact, we published an incredibly popular article about this here so check it out.