The NFLs brutality often leaves its players with crippling pain. But many believe the league has fought against a sensible alternative to addictive opioids
The ethical gymnastics demanded of NFL fans have grown more challenging over the past decade as the scientific evidence linking football with brain injuries mounts. Last weeks study of 111 deceased NFL players brains found evidence of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 110 of the subjects, forcing spectators to reconcile their thirst for the bone-crunching hits at the core of the leagues appeal with an inconvenient reality: that many of the players they cheer will one day pay a grim price long after the lights have gone out.
Time and again the NFL, which has been accused of concealing the harmful effects of concussions, has prioritized the short-term effectiveness of players over their long-term well-being. Then there are owners like billionaire oil tycoon Jerry Jones, whose Dallas Cowboys recently unseated Real Madrid as the worlds most valuable sports team, who continue to deny the connection between football and brain injuries. Its a stance evocative of the seven largest US tobacco company CEOs who collectively denied the addictive nature of nicotine before a congressional subcommittee in 1994.
None of this appears to have dented the leagues popularity, at least not yet. But this week the NFL finally took a long-overdue step toward reversing a steadfast refusal to acknowledge medical cannabis as a legitimate option for pain management. The league sent a letter to the NFL Players Association offering to collaborate on research into the potential use of cannabis for medical rehabilitation.
I think we have a lot more to learn about that, said Allen Sills, a Vanderbilt University neurosurgeon installed as the NFLs chief medical officer in March, told the Washington Post this week. Certainly the research about marijuana and really more particularly cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to the treatment of both acute and chronic pain, that is an area of research that we need a lot more information on and we need to further develop.
The decision comes at a time when an opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions in America, prompting fiery rhetoric from US president Donald Trump. Many believe marijuana offers a safer and far less addictive alternative to opioids. The ability to recover from injury rapidly is paramount in footballs next-man-up culture. Former players have recounted the cocktails of pain pills and anti-inflammatory injections dispensed liberally to get them back on the field. Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet, Toradol and Celebrex are as commonplace in NFL locker rooms as shoulder pads and Stickum. It is a behind-the-scenes chemical smorgasbord that helps power a multibillion-dollar industry.
Yet marijuana, despite being legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, remains verboten, with players who test positive for the drug subject to unreasonable penalties including rehab programs, fines and suspensions. The league has come under fire for punishing cannabis users more severely than domestic-violence offenders, most notably in 2015, when Josh Gordon was banned one year for a failed marijuana test compared to Ray Rices two-game suspension for knocking out his fiancee. (Amid public outcry, both punishments were subsequently reduced and lengthened respectively.)
There is evidence that the leagues treatment of injured players exacerbates the prescription drug abuse epidemic. A peer-reviewed scientific study conducted by researchers at Washington University in St Louis found that retired NFL players misuse opioid pain medications at a rate more than four times that of the general population. Of the 644 former players surveyed, more than half said they used opioids during their careers. Of that group, 71% said they had misused the drugs and 63% said they obtained pills from from a source other than a physician: a team-mate, coach, family member or the internet.
Its easy to see why players seek out pain medication. This week, the Super Bowl winning quarterback Jim Plunkett described the grim existence many retired players live through. My life sucks, the 69-year-old told the San Jose Mercury News. Its no fun being in this body right now. Everything hurts.
The issue has made its way to US district court in northern California, where in March an amended complaint filed on behalf of more than 1,800 former players against the NFLs 32 teams described a culture that disregards player safety and federal laws on the handling of narcotics and painkillers. It contends that teams maintain the return to play practice or policy by ensuring that players are not told of the health risks associated with taking medications, adding that players are not informed of the long-term health effects of taking controlled substances and prescription medications in the amounts given to them.
Research shows that cannabis can reduce the severity of concussions and is a safe and non-addictive alternative to opiates for pain management and can even help curtail alcohol abuse and the violent behavior that may stem from repeated concussions. The neuroprotective, analgesic, anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities of cannabis are tailor-made for a sport in which cranial and bodily impact are inherent. That it hasnt been green-lit for medical applications years ago is the only controversy here.
Sport holds a mirror up to society and the reflection isnt always pleasant. The NFL didnt always bar players from using marijuana, only instituting a rigorous testing program in the 1980s as the war on drugs took hold across the country. Now as the opioid crisis crescendos from coast to coast, it appears the NFL is finally ready to do whats right even if it never should have taken this long.