Research has demonstrated CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, hemp, and hops, can help with pain, inflammation, and anxiety, among other ailments. In fact, on Friday, Forbes contributor Tom Angell reported that the World Health Organization recommended re-scheduling the entire cannabis plant and several of its key components, including CBD, effectively recognizing marijuana’s medical potential and the need to study it further.
Notwithstanding, the National Football League continues to bar players from medicating with CBD, even though the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is charge of setting the criteria for anti-doping in most of the world’s sports, allowed for its use in late-2017, and several other professional sports leagues in the U.S. have already taken that step. The league argues marijuana and its derivatives are still considered a Schedule I (federally illegal) substance under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Controlled Substances Act of 1970, although more than 30 U.S. states have legalized it in some form.
While valid and understandable from a legal standpoint, the line of reasoning has been widely criticized, with people citing wellness and health issues. Players assured cannabis could help address some of the biggest issues in the NFL, from brain injuries, to the excessive prescription of opioids and other strong, addictive, dangerous painkillers.
An Alternative To Opioids
Conducting research for this article, I interviewed several former NFL players and asked them to share their stories, and their thoughts on marijuana use among athletes and the NFL’s decision to ban it.
One thing that I found noteworthy was how similar many of their stories were: several of these athletes had suffered a bad injury at some point during their careers, had had to undergo surgery, and had eventually been prescribed strong painkillers, usually opioids, to help them deal with pain and get them back to the field as fast as possible. While effective in accomplishing the latter, opioids brought these players a great deal of undesired side effects, from night terrors to constipation.
As it is well known today, while opioids bring great relief, they do so at the cost of a myriad of side effects and a heavy addiction potential. In fact, the administration of opioids outside hospital settings is such a big problem in the U.S. that it ends with the lives of almost 50,000 Americans every year – according to 2017 statistics. Conversely, cannabis, which has also been shown to help with pain, generates very few undesired consequences.
As Grant Mattos, former player with the San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans told Playboy before last year’s Super Bowl, “Opioids nearly killed me. Cannabis, and a lot of love from friends and family, pulled me out of a very dark place when the NFL dream died.”
Adding to these comments, Joe Montana, former San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs player, and four-time Super Bowl champion said, “Legalization is picking up steam on a global level and I feel like now is the time to spread information about the curing capabilities of this plant. As with any medicine, increased accessibility comes with the need for education.”
More than a year has gone by since these comments. But not much has changed.
In fact, the NFL still bans the use of all cannabis products – smokable and non- smokable. This effectively forces athletes in pain to choose between taking opioids and continuing to play, or opting for the safer option offered by cannabis and quitting the league for good.
No Education, No Change
Nothing has really changed in the last year when it comes to cannabis and football, said Cullen Jenkins, a defensive tackle who played on the NFL for 13 seasons, winning a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, and has now gotten into the cannabis business with Fresh Farms CBD. For him, the main problem is the lack of knowledge and education.
When he was first introduced to CBD oil, he thought it would get him high. But, he would discover, this was not the case at all: unlike THC, CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it won’t make you feel “high” or “stoned,” just relieved.
“The research behind cannabis has now grown so much that a lot of people are really starting to pay attention to it and look at it for the helpful, medicinal side of it and not as just a substance to get high. I think that’s a big step in the right direction,” he told me during a recent conversation.
The NFL will change its policies for liability issues, Jenkins said. But, when it comes to the general wellbeing of the players, the league won’t move as fast as he’d like.
“Players get prescribed addictive, dangerous drugs countless times every year. This is not something that you only get when you have surgery; they give you medication if you sprained ankle, or a bit of swelling, or if you bang a knee… And these things cause so much more harm to the body than CBD and other things cannabis-related, that it is a shame.”
Javiar Collins was an offensive tackle with the Dallas Cowboys, the Carolina Panthers, the Cleveland Browns and the Denver Broncos. Since his retirement from pro football, he’s become an advocate for the benefits of cannabis.
Getting educated on the scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of cannabis and hemp-derived CBD is key, he said. However, he understands the NFL’s position: they can’t allow for a federally illegal substance like cannabis. But the Farm Bill “basically opened the game for hemp-derived CBD.
“It’s good that so many players are voicing out, sharing their stories and opinions. This will continue to push, urge the juggernaut to review its stance on CBD, where I believe the focus should be put for now,” Collins told me. “The shift at the federal level to legalizing the use of hemp-based CBD is a cause for the NFL to begin to be more open to at least the CBD portion of cannabis.”
Anna Valent is the Executive Director of Athletes For CARE, a nonprofit organization created by athletes, dedicated to advancing the cause of medical cannabis and other wellbeing initiatives for professional athletes. When asked to share a message for Roger Goodell, she said she’d like to explain to him it’s imperative we all conceive cannabis as a health and wellness tool.
“This isn’t about locker rooms filled with smoke and stoned athletes high on whatever the neighborhood drug dealer grew in his basement,” she said, noting that, when taken as medication, cannabis can be properly dosed. “We are talking about specific strains, specific cannabinoids, the ratio of CBD-to-THC, micro-dosing, topicals, edibles, oils, etc.”
This is not about getting high, she reiterated a few times. This is about “natural, safer alternatives to long term pain management, managing depression, anxiety and helping heal and protect the brain from trauma. This is about healthier players while they are playing and when they retire. It’s about longer careers and better production on the field.”
That being said, she too acknowledged she understands why the NFL still doesn’t allow for cannabis-derived products. Product quality is not fully regulated yet, and team medical personnel might still not feel confident that they are receiving the correct combination of cannabinoids for each player on a consistent basis, she explained. “But the NFL has the power and the influence to drive research and policies, if they would be open to cannabis as a possibility,” she added. “My hope is that they are privately considering the possibilities, conducting their own research and preparing new policies.”
Tiki Barber, former running back for the New York Giants, recently launched Grove Group Management, an investment company aimed at helping businesses navigate cannabis legal regulations and ameliorate business practices. It’s his opinion as well that legalization is necessary for the NFL to approve the use of cannabis. “The quicker we can get cannabis legalized federally, the better off athletes will be,” he said.
Javiar Collins also warned me not to overplay weed’s benefits – as Marvin Washington had too in several occasions in the past. It’s important to understand cannabis cannot cure all and do all, and that it is not right for everyone. While many can benefit from marijuana-based therapies, others can find them pretty ineffective, he said.
By means of conclusion, Cullen Jenkins shared a straight-up message for commissioner Goodell.
Look, Roger. You’re playing with people’s lives, with people’s well being (…) Why cant the NFL, the biggest moneymaking sport (I believe) in the U.S. be the leader in cannabis?
The NFL is a leader, a role model. If they took a step in the right direction with cannabis, other people would start to take notice and learn about the medical benefits of cannabis.
As Javiar Collins mentioned, there might be a few silver linings on the horizon, especially following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill and the subsequent legalization of hemp-derived products, including those containing CBD extracted from the plant. It seems a lot more likely that the NFL will allow for hemp CBD now that it is a federally legal substance, instead of CBD derived from hemp’s still illegal cousin, marijuana.
But there’s more, said Lindy Snider, founder and CEO of Lindi Skin, partner at cannabis investment fund Treehouse Global Ventures, and board member at Athletes for Care. “Pro athletes have banded together to help move the conversation by getting educated about the science around cannabis. Where there were once just solitary voices of individual athlete advocates, they have grown along with the industry itself into a powerful voice for good,” she commented. “And whereas players used to figuratively pound their fists insisting on league rule changes to allow cannabis, they now recognize the need to be on the same side of the table as the leagues and are working to help fund as well as participate in scientific studies which prove its efficacy.”
Marvin Washington, former Super Bowl champion turned cannabis entrepreneur, investor and advocate, is also feeling optimistic about the future. Washington assures he’s seen progress since he got into the cannabis space in 2013. “Just the mere existence of Athletes for Care is a big step. But also, the NFL is now more aware of this; they have changed some testing policies. The discussion of a bigger change in policy is being held; you have team owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and by DeMaurice F. “De” Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), openly talking about changing the cannabis policy at the NFL, and having cannabis as an alternative to opiates.
“Things are changing… Maybe not as fast as people would like them to, but they are changing, and we’re making sure we’re doing things right. I think in a few years, we’ll see cannabis integrated not only to the NFL but to all professional sports.”