With an increasing number of NFL players relying on potentially dangerous prescription painkillers, does the league need to relax its attitude to medical cannabis?


The US National Football League (NFL) is a juggernaut. Even with decreased television ratings in 2017, the league’s revenue was up. Each of the NFL’s 32 teams took in USD 255 million in 2017, according to a report by ESPN’s Darren Rovell. That adds up to USD 8.16 billion for the entire league and is a 4.9 percent increase over 2016.


Despite the surging popularity, player safety is still an overhanging threat for the league. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been an issue played out in the court rooms for years, and still continues to be a topic as the pathway to potential player pay-outs are lined with barriers.


Now the league faces a new trend related to player welfare; Opioids.


This all started in April earlier this year, when NFL Running back Mike James became the first NFL player to seek a “therapeutic use exemption” for cannabis. This was after doctors had already prescribed a cocktail of painkillers to deal with the brutal pain of playing in the NFL, a common form of pain management among the sports community. Yet according to James after taking the pain killers for the first time in 2013, he became hooked only weeks later.


This, according to a 2011 report from the Washington University of Medicine, is a common trend. Of the 644 former NFL players surveyed, 52 percent reported using opioids during their career, while 71 percent reported misusing them. The prevalence of current use among those retired players is seven percent: about three times the rate of use among the general population.


Many believe that a way of combating this opioid crisis is through the legalization of medical cannabis. Martellus Bennett, a recently retired tight end, claimed on the Bleacher Report podcast, hosted by Chris Simms and Adam Lefkoe, that “about 89 percent” of current NFL players are taking cannabis. He explained that “There are times of the year where your body just hurts so bad. You don’t want to be popping pills all the time. There are anti-inflammatory drugs you take so long that they start to eat at your liver, kidneys and things like that. A human made that. God made weed.”


The public’s views are also shifting, and according to a Yahoo News/Marist Poll released in 2017, 69 percent of surveyed Americans approve of professional athletes using cannabis for pain relief and 67 percent say that using a doctor’s prescription for an opioid is a greater health risk than using a doctor’s prescription for cannabis.


Furthermore, the drug could also help in the prevention of another condition heavily associated with NFL, the aforementioned CTE. A 2013 study performed by a Portuguese university found that cannabis helped regenerate brain cells in mice, while a 2012 Israeli university study showed low doses of cannabis can aid in recovery from brain injuries.


NHL – Leading the Charge

Canada’s stance on cannabis has always been ahead of the US, and on October 17, 2018 the recreational use of the substance was legalized. The question in the country’s sports community was, how will this affect the National Hockey League (NHL)? The short answer: it won’t.


The Canadian leagues have always routinely tested players for performance-enhancing substances, while randomly selecting one-third of players for testing for illicit substances, such as cannabis. If cannabis is detected, it is added to the report which goes to the Performance Enhancing Substances Program Committee. There are no penalties and no suspensions. However, if tests show a dangerously high level of cannabis, the player is referred to the NHL’s Substance Abuse and Behavioural Health Program.


May believe this is the road the NFL should take as a way of combating the opioid crisis and ensuring players can deal with the pain of such a high impact game. The calls for this to happen will only continue to grow as more states make cannabis legal.


The NFL itself is not subject to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code, but WADA has confirmed that in the past it has granted Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for cannabinoids in the past “where medically justified” and “where the relevant criteria have been satisfied”. Nevertheless, the drug still remains on the NFL’s banned list, although it requires two positive tests before a suspension is put in place. This stance has been backed up by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “To date, they haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players… if they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”