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When you hear the names Josh Gordon and Ricky Williams, what do you think of? Perhaps you think of a talented running back and wide receiver. Maybe you even associate each with your favorite NFL team such as the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins or Cleveland Browns? Or perhaps you conjure up images of two troubled athletes who have drug problems, specifically marijuana. After all, Josh Gordon and Ricky Williams both served suspensions for failing drug tests due to marijuana use. Josh Gordon failed two tests. One had him suspended for 10 games of the season. That was a reduction from the initial one-year suspension. Ricky Williams was banned for an entire season in 2006 for one of his violations.
The National Football League takes a harsh stance on illegal drug use, including banned substances. According to USA Today, players get tested yearly for banned substances. If they test positive for marijuana, they must enter an intervention program in which they can be tested more regularly. If the player fails a test while in the program, the failure triggers increasingly harsher penalties. At a certain point, this includes a 10-game suspension, which is what Josh Gordon received in 2014. In the test, the player provides an A sample and a B sample, which confirms a positive result by showing the A sample was not a fluke. When the test is failed, it leads to the consequence. In both players’ cases, the B sample was positive by only trace amounts.
The NFL justifies its suspensions for marijuana based on the notion of keeping players safe and how it affects the league’s appearance. According to their policy, “Combining notions of safety and of image”—on the first of its 41 pages of the policy on substance abuse: “Substance abuse can lead to on-the-field injuries, to alienation of fans, to diminished job performance and to personal hardship… NFL Players should not by their conduct suggest that substance abuse is either acceptable or safe.” The NFL is understandably concerned about the safety of its players and the fan base. Whether that is altruistic or money-driven, or a combination of both, it’s hard to tell. Either way, the NFL wants its billion-dollar image well represented.But, how realistic is this?
How Useful is a Ban on Marijuana in Today’s Society?
To examine this, one must look at both the societal aspect of pot use and the use of it within sports and the NFL.
While the drug is still illegal under federal law, states seem to be adopting the use of marijuana both medically and recreationally. The drug is legal for recreational purposes in three states and Washington, D.C. A vote is on the ballot for the 2016 election in nine states to legalize it for nonmedical use at the time of the writing of this article. A Pew study found that 57 percent of U.S. adults say marijuana should be made legal, compared to just 32 percent 10 years ago.
In addition, marijuana is legal for medical use in 25 states. These statistics seem to represent a growing agreement by lawmakers legalizing cannabis may be more beneficial than thought from a medical perspective and increasingly recreational one.
Other factors such as economics and changing law enforcement policies play into the growing number of states saying yes to the substance in some form. In a New York Times article arguing to legalize the drug, the reasons range from shifting the focus of law enforcement from petty arrest for minor cannabis charges to more substantial issues to medical benefits to debunking the myth that legalizing it will cause addiction to the drug. One cannot ignore that the private and public view on marijuana use is shifting beneath our feet.
How Does this Relate to the NFL Though?
According to one article on Bleacher Report that discusses cannabis use in the NFL, one player is quoted as saying that 40 percent to 50 percent of players use the substance. In addition, the article details how 16 players interviewed anonymously mentioned how players who do not fail drug tests use cannabis on a daily or weekly basis. In a league with approximately 1,700 players, even a conservative estimate of a 10-percent use of marijuana means that 170 players are using. According to estimates from players like the ones in the article, the number could be as high as 850 or more players. According to the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the sport is very dangerous right now, and not because of concussions—but because of cannabis use. Also according to the NFL policy, fans could be deterred by this. Yet, one would be hard-pressed to find stadiums on game days and places that show games 5-percent, 10-percent, 25-percent, or even 50-percent empty because of the fans’ disgust for the prevalent use of the substance in the sport. There are no justifiable statistics to back up these claims the NFL makes against allowing marijuana use.
According to the New York Daily News, “NFL players endured 182 reported concussions in regular-season games this season, the league disclosed Friday, a 58-percent rise over the 2014 season and the highest number in four years of record keeping.” There are no stats on injuries due to marijuana use. If you look at the weekly injury list for games, the reasons are related to torn muscles or other nondrug-related issues. No injuries are directly linked to marijuana use. In relation to the NFL’s fear of the fan base turning away over apparent rampant marijuana use, average attendance in 2015, according to Statista, ranged from 92,000 to 52,000–52,000 was for the St. Louis Rams who were rumored to be moving to Los Angeles during the 2015–2016 season, and eventually did. Low attendance there was justifiable. Even though NFL attendance has declined, research links it to online streaming and cost to attend games. If cannabis use is not causing injury issues or deterring fans like the NFL says it will;
Why Are So Many Players Supposedly Using the Substance, and Should the NFL Legalize It?
The most obvious reason for use of the substance by players and reason to legalize it is so the players can enjoy it recreationally. But that is not a justifiable reason for the NFL to legalize its use. Especially when the league has young players coming in that are vulnerable to peer pressure and could potentially misuse the substance. Another reason the NFL may not legalize its use is because of health risks cannabis has on the human body.
Does Marijuana Really Harm the Human Body Enough to Justify Banning Its Use?
According to WebMD, “Smoking pot can increase your heart rate by as much as two times for up to three hours. That’s why some people have a heart attack right after they use marijuana. It can increase bleeding, lower blood pressure, and affect your blood sugar, too.” For people who are not athletes and in moderate to poor health, this is a dangerous prospect. On the other hand, one could argue that NFL players are elite athletes, and marijuana should not affect them. Consider if an athlete were to use marijuana after an intense day of training or a game when his heart rate may be high, it could be problematic. Or, if a 300-pound-plus lineman who may be technically obese or have high blood sugar uses cannabis, it could be dangerous.
Moreover, aside from the normal dizziness, red eyes, dry mouth, and increased appetite that come with substances use, marijuana can lead to long-term health issues. The long-term issues include memory loss, irritability, loss of appetite, and slowed reaction time, according to WebMD. The publication also mentions that car accident chances double if driving while high. The negative effects of pot on humans are enough to justify its ban from the NFL for recreational use or for self-medication.
What About Using Marijuana for Pain Management?
The main place marijuana might have in the NFL is for supervised medical use for acute and chronic pain management. At least this is what one player, Eugene Monroe, who believes he was ostracized for his views feels. He was released from his team shortly after speaking out on his stance for legalizing it in the NFL. This is also the view of former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon. In an interview with Katie Couric for PBS, the players discussed using cannabis to treat pain in place of prescription drugs. This point may be more valid than any other. McMahon mentions in the interview how he was using 100 Percocet pills, a potent and addictive painkiller, a month. Monroe suggested that the use of marijuana for pain relief would be safer than prescription drugs, which can lead to addiction. Both make valid points as painkiller addiction is a growing epidemic in the world and the NFL.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “The abuse of and addiction to opioids such as heroin, morphine, and prescription pain relievers is a serious global problem that affects the health, social, and economic welfare of all societies. It is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide.” This serious problem is a major reason why the NFL should look at alternative therapies for pain, including supervised medical marijuana use. And players need a safe way to manage pain because it is part of the nature of the game.
On average, a player with a 4.56-second score for the 40-yard dash can produce up to 1,600 pounds of tackling force. This stat is according to Timothy Gay, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska and author of The Physics of Football. Moreover, as the image above shows, today’s players are bigger and stronger, and they are doling out hits equal to up to the equivalent of a 30-mph car crash with no seat belts. The injuries an impact like this can cause are significant.
According to Forbes, if a car going that speed hit a pedestrian, it could lead to death. Furthermore, a car crash at that speed, depending on the angle of the collision, could cause hospitalization, long-term rehab, or death according to Geared. Imagine when a football player collides with another at up to 30 mph, even with protective equipment, over the course of a grueling season and preseason, consistent pain, injury, and pain from the injury are guaranteed results with the hits players take. These hits are akin to a low-speed car accident that can do so much damage to the body. Some examples of common injuries suffered by NFL players, according to USA Today, include torn muscles and ligaments, muscle strains, and tendon ruptures. This is aside from the daily bruises and bodily punishment NFL players endure. With these kinds of injuries, it is no surprise that NFL doctors use painkillers regularly.
Using Opioids to Treat Pain is Just as Addictive
With using opioids to treat pain, there is a potential for opioid addiction, opposed to a different treatment such as marijuana. The numbers on the misuse of opioids for pain management in the NFL, including how it affects players once they retire, are staggering. According to ESPN’s Outside the Lines, which ran an article based on a study by the University of Washington in St. Louis School of Medicine on painkiller use in NFL, players revealed the key findings below. The study was done on 644 players who played between 1979 and 2006. The players played for an average of 7.6 seasons and averaged 48 years in age.
- 52% of the retired players said they used prescription pain medication during their playing days. Of those, 71 % said they misused the drugs then, and 15 % of the misusers acknowledged misusing the medication within the past 30 days.
- Those who misused prescription painkillers while playing were three times more likely to misuse the drugs today than those who used the pills as prescribed while playing.
- 63% of the retired players who used prescription pain pills while playing obtained the medications from a nonmedical source: a teammate, coach, trainer, family member, dealer or the internet.
With these findings in mind, at the least, the NFL should examine alternative ways to manage players’ pain that will not cause a dangerous addiction, such as medical marijuana. Especially for players that literally give their body and minds for the game. And especially because marijuana is not as addictive as painkillers when used under supervision for pain management.
Fewer Side Effects when Used for Pain Management?
In fact, according to a Canadian study, people who used marijuana for pain management did not have an increased risk for side effects, while those who did not use it for pain did show an increased risk for side effects. The study clarifies that the side effects were less serious, like dizziness, nausea, and headaches. The study even showed some change in mood and quality of life in a positive direction for those with pain. Moreover, according to Healthline, “About 9% of people who use marijuana will become abusers, according to a study endorsed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There is a growing body of studies showing the effective use of marijuana for pain management. Even the popular Dr. Oz stated, “Marijuana may be safer than opioid use in the short term. It hasn’t caused any lethal drug overdoses, and the number of opioid deaths appears to have decreased in states with laws allowing medical marijuana.” Under proper supervision, medical marijuana can effectively treat the pain of NFL players, both acute and chronic, with a much lower risk of addiction that opioid painkillers. With this in mind, the NFL may want to examine the use of marijuana in the league again from a medical perspective.
Marijuana is Still Illegal Under Federal Law
It is, however, important to mention that the NFL might warrant its hesitation in allowing the use of marijuana for medical use for one other reason: Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. According to a quote in a Rolling Stone article on this topic, the NFL stated, “Independent medical advisors to the league and the National Football League Players Association are constantly reviewing and relying on the most current research and scientific data. The league will continue to follow the advice of leading experts on treatment, pain management and other symptoms associated with concussions and other injuries.” It continues, “However, medical experts have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach related to marijuana, and our position on its use remains consistent with federal law and workplace policies across the country.” That is a fancy way of saying that the NFL does not want to break the law even if science supports doing so.
One Thing is Clear…
Gordon and Williams may become footnotes in the history marijuana use in the NFL. One thing is clear, they may be onto something, however. Ricky Williams managed an illustrious career rushing for 10,000 yards and 66 touchdowns. That puts him just outside the top 25 rushing leaders of all time. Gordon has played only three seasons, including suspensions, and he averages 17 yards a catch with over 2,500 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. Given their stated use of marijuana, it may have extended their careers by helping to manage pain safely, and in Williams’ case, helped him avoid an opioid addiction that could have ruined his life. These players and others are leading the way through a cloud of smoke to shed light on the argument for use of marijuana legally in the NFL. Based on the examination of marijuana use in the NFL, they may soon see the cloud lifted and their fight become a reality.
Read on to Part 2: Examining What the Use of Cannabis in the NFL Means for Parents, Teachers, and Our Youth
Feature image courtesy of, Southern Arkansas University.