Cannabis & The NFL Today

By Sean Saldana

We’ve come a long way from the days of blatant, unabashed propaganda demonizing cannabis - Thank God! In recent years, we’ve seen not just wider cultural acceptance of cannabis and CBD, but wider acceptance by the legal system as well. As decriminalization moves from state to state and as the general public becomes more accepting of cannabis, one thing is clear: the tide is turning.

That said, not all areas of society are quite as receptive.

One in particular is the world of sports.

With Super Bowl LIV fast approaching, it’s worth exploring the strange and confusing relationship the athletic powers that be (specifically the NFL) have had - and continue to have - with cannabis.

One of the fascinating things about the human condition is that we are always pushing ourselves -- to go further, to go faster, to aim higher.

There is perhaps no better example of this than what we’ve been able to achieve in athletics. Jesse Owens stunned the world at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when he won the 100m dash in 10.3 seconds -- a time that wouldn’t have even placed in the top eight of the 2016 Rio Olympic finals. NFL legends like Mean Joe Green and Randy White weighed in at 275 and 257 pounds respectively. By 2013, the average NFL defensive tackle was at well over 310 pounds. The scale and intensity at which we play sports today was unfathomable even a few decades ago.

The innovations we’ve made in sports science have given us incredible moments like Odell’s one-handed catch and Adrian Peterson’s infamous hit on William Gay. In the 1970s, a 5000 yard passing season was unheard of. This is now something quarterbacks do on a regular basis.

It’s also worth noting, though, that all of this comes at a cost.

Many NFL players have described the intensity of games as “like being in a car crash” every week.

Not only are NFL players having to concern themselves about the long-term effects on their brain due to CTE, they’re constantly dealing with the aches and pain that accompany such an aggressive game. After all, there’s a reason that retired NFL players misuse opioids at a rate four times higher than the general population.

This is also why many players are starting to explore cannabis as a means of recovery and pain management. In recent years, more and more players have opened up about their use of cannabis to deal with the high intensity of the game. And to be clear, the use of cannabis isn’t limited to practice squad members or guys who only get a few reps a game. Some of football’s biggest stars have talked about their use of cannabis during the NFL season.

Last fall, Calvin Johnson, arguably the most dominant and dangerous receiver throughout the 2010s, had this to say in an interview with Sports Illustrated: “When I got to the league, [there] was opioid abuse. You really could go in the training room and get what you wanted. I can get Vicodin, I can get Oxy[contin]. It was too available. I used Percocet and stuff like that. And I did not like the way that made me feel. I had my preferred choice of medicine. Cannabis.”

In a roundtable hosted by the Bleacher Report, one former NFL player estimated that around 80% of all players in the NFL use cannabis to handle the stress of the season.

We’re also starting to see former athletes use their career earnings and platforms to invest in CBD.

The most noteworthy of these ventures in recent memory happened last September when three-time Super Bowl Champion tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his partnership with CBDMEDIC. During the announcement, Gronkowski said, “For the first time in more than a decade, I am pain free. And that is a big deal.”

Many things are starting to fall in place. The general public has become a lot more receptive to the benefits of cannabis, high-level athletes are ditching the pill bottles for more natural (and far less addictive) recovery methods, and the entire industry is becoming more intertwined with the world of sports. There is, however, one party involved that has been especially slow to adapt: the NFL itself.

Currently, the League takes a particularly punitive approach to the use of cannabis. Not only are players subjected to testing, the consequences for failing these tests become exponentially harsh -- starting with mandatory enrollment in substance abuse programs and escalating to indefinite suspension. And while players have developed methods to plan for and pass these tests, the League has still managed to catch several players on failed tests. In 2018, the NFL charged its own athletes $4 million in substance related fines alone.

In an era where cannabis and CBD are seeing massive, widespread acceptance by the public, lawmakers, and the business world, the NFL has remained incredibly obtuse.

That said, change may (finally) be on the horizon.

In May of last year, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to hiring a mental health practitioner for each team and forming a committee to study alternative pain management methods to address opioid abuse.

We’ve also seen major change from another big player in sports. Just last month, Major League Baseball removed CBD from its Drugs of Abuse list for a very similar reason -- opioid abuse among former (and current) players. How this will influence other sports organizations, only time will tell.

It’d be wishful thinking to assume all that this means the NFL will completely change its stance on cannabis, but the tide most definitely turning.

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