The NFL has never demonstrated an honest-to-goodness concern about the safety and well-being of its laborers. It hid the danger of concussions for years, while also pumping buckets of painkillers into the workforce. The only thing that matters is the players’ availability to suit up – as often as possible for as long as they’re effective.
But commissioner Roger Goodell & Co. can’t say that. They have to give the impression that the NFL is family. The concerned parents sit in offices, fretting over the rambunctious youngsters running around the field. And like all good parents know, rules are one-way only: “Do as we say, not as we do.”
Washington’s star left tackle, Trent Williams, was suspended for marijuana at the end of the 2011 season. He was suspended again on Tuesday, reportedly for missing a drug test. He’ll miss the next four games during a crucial stretch against Minnesota, Green Bay, Dallas and Arizona.
I don’t know if Williams currently uses marijuana, which remains banned by the NFL. But for argument’s sake, let’s say he does use it, indulging consistently to play through painful injuries. Let’s say his reputation for toughness and dependability is a direct result of consuming cannabis.
You know how the league responds? “Just say no … and take this, instead.”
The NFL doesn’t have a problem with drug use; the problem is players who use drugs that the league doesn’t approve and peddle.
Never mind that some of those substances, including Vicodin and Percocet, are powerful opioids that can lead to addiction. Never mind that the prescription drugs reduce the brain’s recognition of pain that’s meant to protect players from further damage. Never mind that abuse of those and similar painkillers is considered a root of the nation’s rising heroin use.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis conducted a scientific study that found NFL players misuse opioid pain medications at a rate more than four times that of the general population. We don’t have to wonder where the drugs’ popularity began.
“I guess my first half of my career … the whole NFL, the doctors, the team doctors and trainers, they were giving them out like candy,” retired Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson said last summer in an interview with ESPN’s E:60.
Johnson is among over 1,500 former NFL players who filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, alleging that doctors and trainers routinely distributed painkillers without examination or prescriptions. The players also claim they were deliberately misled about the drugs’ dangerous side effects.
Eben Britton, who spent six seasons as an NFL offensive lineman from 2009-2014, wrote a fascinating piece for Sports Illustrated in December, outlining everything players do to stay on the field. The league has eased off pushing opioids to active players, but it writes plenty of Adderall prescriptions.
Britton wrote that taking Adderall was like “riding lightning” and he “took it under the league’s therapeutic use exemption during the entirety of my career. Simply put, the drug helped me play through the pain. It was legal, and that was good enough for me.”
Well, marijuana is approved for medical use in more than two dozen states, as legal as anything else the NFL hands out for “therapeutic use,” like the Toradol injected into players’ butts on game day. Instead of clinging to the stigma of weed as a recreational street drug, the NFL should let players utilize the plant’s medicinal benefits.
Eugene Monroe, an offensive lineman, spent five years in the league before retiring from the Baltimore Ravens last season, shortly after his CNN interview for a report titled “Is it time for football to reconsider marijuana?” Monroe has been a leading advocate of the movement ever since and he asks some great questions.
“Nineteen players were suspended last season for testing positive for ‘substances of abuse,’ and for some, their careers may be over,” Monroe wrote for The Players Tribune in May. “Why? For using something that can actually help people? How can a league so casual about the use of addictive opioids take such a hard line on a drug that might provide a safer alternative?”
Several other former NFL players also claim that marijuana relieves pain and aids recovery more effectively than the hydrocodone and oxycodone typically prescribed by team doctors. But the NFL continues to treat marijuana like heroin and cocaine.
“We believe (the ban) is the correct policy for now, in the best interest of our players and the long-term health of our players,” Goodell said during Super Bowl week.
Unfortunately for him, the league’s track record on players’ long-term health interests makes his concern ring hollow. Even if the entire medical community isn’t sold on marijuana yet, there’s enough evidence from enough studies to warrant flexibility from the NFL.
If it helps, think of pro football as a life-threatening condition and cannabis as an experimental drug with promising signs. Doctors across the country are prescribing it for a number of conditions that afflict NFL players. Why not allow the same relief to men who endure violent collisions with one another on a weekly basis?
“The NFL should explore every means available to safely treat chronic pain and traumatic head injuries,” Monroe wrote. “And that means that the league needs to take a long, hard look at the benefits of medical marijuana.”
Or it can keep handing out suspensions.
Along with the problematic drugs of its choice.