Why the NFL is slowly embracing medical marijuana

In Feature Stories, Research Topics by Kay Mathews

NFL players want medical marijuana, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he’ll consider medical experts’ advice on the issue, and now Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters he supports athletes using medical marijuana.

Will we soon see the NFL exempting medical marijuana from its drug ban policy?

The buzz began when Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, proclaimed in December 2013 that it’s time for the NFL to embrace medical marijuana as a pain reliever.  Bryant argued that “pain is the singular constant of the NFL” and “the NFL should lead the conversation on medicinal marijuana as a therapeutic alternative.”  What followed was nothing less than a storm of commentary on the NFL allowing their athletes to medicate with marijuana.

HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel aired an episode on Jan. 21 with a segment titled “Marijuana in the NFL.”  Correspondent Andrea Kremer examined the issue by interviewing players and representatives of the NFL.  Nate Jackson, a former tight end with the Denver Broncos, was one of the players interviewed.  Jackson said, “I would medicate myself with non-team sanctioned drugs.  One that grows out of the Earth.  I weeded as needed.”

Jackson indicated that he didn’t smoke marijuana before practices or games, but echoed what Bryant argued, saying, “Pain is a constant. … Marijuana was something that helped me as the season wore on.  My body would start to break down.  I was in a lot of pain.”

The Real Sports report also revealed how prevalent marijuana use is in the NFL.  Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe said “It’s everywhere,” and Jackson estimated that half of all NFL players use marijuana.

Talking to reporters ahead of Super Bowl Sunday, Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson supports the idea of medical marijuana in the NFL.

“I think anything that can make our job a little easier without sacrificing our health at the same time is good for the league, it’s good for players,” Robinson said. “I’m all for alternative forms of recovery and all those types of things — hyperbaric chambers, o-zoning, whatever it may be. So, I’m all for it. Whatever can help the player, I’m for.”

In the HBO report, Kremer also spoke with the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, Adolpho Birch, who oversees the League’s drug policy.  Birch commented that early on the NFL and NFL Players Association made a determination that exemptions for medical marijuana use are not permitted.  Later, however, after hearing that players think marijuana is effective for pain management and less addictive than other drugs prescribed to them, Birch said, “We’ll look at anything that we think is helpful to players, consistent with our values, and able to be worked on within the context of our policy.”

But the NFL’s ban on marijuana use remains in place. NFL players who tests positive for marijuana is subject to the same penalty scheme as if he tested positive for cocaine or heroin. Just look at Broncos linebacker Von Miller who, in 2013, got slapped with a six-game suspension, which cost him $806,162 in salary, after he tested positive for marijuana and a form of Ecstasy.

Touchdown dance for medical marijuana advocates?

Despite NFL’s current hard-line stance on marijuana, the league’s chief is throwing his weight behind medical cannabis.  USA TODAY reported on Jan. 23 that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell indicated that the NFL was open to players using medicinal marijuana for the treatment of head injuries, especially concussions, should medical experts deem it appropriate.

“I’m not a medical expert,” Goodell said cautiously. “We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that.  Our medical experts are not saying that right now.”

Seahawks coach Carroll, talking to media in New York before Sunday’s Super Bowl, said: “We have to continue to explore and compete to find ways that are going to make our game a better game and take care of our players in the best way possible…Regardless of what other stigmas may be involved, I think we have to do this because the world of medicine is trying to do the exact same thing and figure it out and they’re coming to some conclusions.”

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll with his team

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll with his team

NFL agents are also supportive of treating injured NFL players with medical marijuana. Michael McCann, Massachusetts attorney and founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, quoted an unnamed but “prominent,” agent in an article for Sports Illustrated:

“What is the alternative to marijuana?  The alternative sucks. Think about what players take for pain — they take much more serious and much more addictive drugs. Vicodin. Percocet. Oxycodone. These are highly addictive and synthetically manufactured drugs. … They can rip up your insides. I would much rather my guys take natural, less addictive stuff.”

The agent’s statement aligns with Jackson’s experience.  “Pain pills were not good for me,” the ex-player said.  “They made me feel like s&*t.  The pain pills are physically addictive.”

While a Gallup poll found 58 percent of Americans think marijuana should be made legal, a recent HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll “found that the majority of American sports fans (62%) think that marijuana should remain a banned substance for professional athletes regardless of changes in state or federal laws, compared to 36% that think it should not be banned. Additionally, only 34% of sports fans believe professional athletes should be allowed to use marijuana in light of the pain and anxiety of their jobs.”

Gumbel and Kremer discussed those numbers on Real Sports and concluded that sports fans regard football players as “role models” and, therefore, do not want to support their use of marijuana.

Their assessment seems to reflect what former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said last year.  Sharpe told USA TODAY Sports that “loosening the league and NFLPA’s collectively bargained substance abuse policy that mandates suspensions for using the drug won’t change any time soon because it sends the wrong message.”  Sharpe said, “That will never happen. Not in our lifetime, because of the way kids follow what NFL players do.”

However, as pointed out by Andrea Kremer, football players are still considered role models even though they drink alcohol and use painkillers.

Momentum Building

Overall, though, momentum is building for the eventual use of medical marijuana in the NFL.  Players want it, agents want it, Commissioner Goodell has opened the door to discussion, and, as social morays change and information on the benefits of medical marijuana is more widely distributed, sports fans are likely to be swayed as well.  For the moment, though, many are simply pleased that lifting the ban on medical marijuana is on the NFL’s radar screen.

As McCann put it, “Their [marijuana legalization advocates] drug being the subject of negotiations between the most popular sports league and its players’ union would mean it’s come a long way from when it was depicted as causing to the human brain what a frying pan does to eggs.”

Photos courtesy Flickr user Daniel Spiess and j.c. winkler


KayPicKay Mathews is a freelance writer and photojournalist who divides her time between Northwest Arkansas and coastal Georgia.  She holds an undergraduate degree in political science, Master of Public Administration, and has done doctoral-level studies in public policy and public administration.  Mathews is a lifelong fan of the Kansas City Chiefs and an avid reader and traveler