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Inside NFL’s Backwards Marijuana Policy

“The medicine being pumped into these guys is just killing people”

NFL Pot ProblemNFL Pot Problem

The NFL continues an authoritarian stance on marijuana use while team doctors still dole out powerful and addictive painkillers

At the conclusion of North Dallas Forty wide receiver Phil Elliott, played by Nick Nolte, gets blackballed by his team owner for “smoking a marijuana cigarette.” After being presented with a photo that shows Elliott toking up, the team owner patronizes Elliott and says, “Illegal drugs are forbidden by the league rules Phil, you know that.” To which Elliott replies: “Jesus, smoking grass, what are you kidding me? If you nailed all the ballplayers who smoked grass, you wouldn’t even be able to field a punt return team. Besides that, you give me the hardest stuff in Chicago just to get out of the goddamn locker room. Hard drugs!”

Though North Dallas Forty is technically fictional and came out nearly 40 years ago, its story is a classic example of the same-shit-different-day phenomenon. In recent weeks, Bills linemen Marcell Dareus and Seantrel Henderson were each suspended four games for using marijuana. And Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott caused a scandal by simply walking into a legal weed-friendly establishment. Meanwhile, the NFL was busy knuckling players into “cooperating” with a doping investigation based on scant and recanted evidence. 

Given America’s growing acceptance of cannabis, the bad press the NFL gets when it punishes marijuana use more harshly than domestic abuse, and the personal tragedies and lawsuits that have stemmed from team doctors overprescribing opioids, it seems a little peculiar that the NFL continues to retain an authoritarian stance on marijuana use while team doctors simultaneously dole out powerful and addictive painkillers. Especially considering that the league is mired in concussion suits and there’s a possibility that cannabis could reduce the impact of head trauma.

To get a better grasp of this dissonance, let’s take a look at the changing national perception of marijuana, possible incentives the NFL has for maintaining its marijuana policies, upcoming football-related cannabis research initiatives, and what it might take to get the NFL to stop punishing players for using marijuana.

Changing Context
As Kevin Seifert of ESPN pointed out, during the hysteria of the War on Drugs in the 1980s it was “politically and socially necessary” for the NFL to discipline marijuana users. But after the war on drugs proved to be a massive failure, people began viewing certain drugs more tolerantly, and now polls show that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana. As public support increased so did legalization, and today more than 60 percent (20 of the 32 teams) of NFL teams play in states that allow medical marijuana. Come November that percentage could grow as there are a plethora of state ballot initiatives pushing for medical and recreational marijuana legalization.

There are also bills in the Senate and House aimed specifically at cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD), which is a compound found in cannabis that doesn’t get people high. CBD is typically taken orally and it includes only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis. A group of vocal ex-players are pushing the league to allow players to use CBD as a pain reliever. Because as the league’s policy currently stands, a player taking CBD could potentially surpass the league’s testing threshold and test positive.

“The risk [of testing positive for using CBD] is very low compared to the people using high-THC cannabis,” said Joel Stanley, CEO of hemp extracts producer CW Hemp. “But there certainly is a risk. But when you have something that you know is non-toxic, non-psychoactive, and non-addictive, and if you are in those high-impact situations, why not [allow players to] take that product?”

The NFL declined interview requests for this story. But a league spokesperson sent over the following statement:

“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 went on to say:

“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.”

The statement ignores that just because something is federally illegal, that doesn’t mean that an employer has to test for it or punish its employees. And that the league’s marijuana policies are stricter than those in the Olympics, NBA, NHL and MLB. Another thing the statement fails to answer is why the NFL still clings to its Reagan-era-driven drug policies even though marijuana isn’t a performance enhancer, doesn’t pose significant health risks to players, and it’s pretty questionable that removing marijuana off the league’s banned substances list would negatively affect the NFL’s bottom line.

While punishing marijuana use might not seem entirely rational in today’s cultural climate, organizations tend to act in their perceived self-interest. So what’s making the NFL cling to its punishment of pot users?

The Possible Incentives
George Atallah, NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs, said that the illegality of marijuana in many states is “probably the primary reason” why cannabis remains a banned substance in the league. Aside from concerns over players breaking the law while using cannabis in states where it is not yet legal, Atallah did not provide any further reason for why the current policy remains in place.

Because the NFL did not comply with interview requests, and has only issued vague statements in the past regarding this topic, the other sources left who have experience with the league and its policies (and who were willing to speak to reporters) were mostly people who want to see the policy changed. While their theories are intriguing and intuitive, the real imperatives behind the league’s marijuana policies remain speculative.

Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe backs up Atallah’s reasoning saying that the NFL will continue to punish players for using cannabis as long as it is a schedule 1 drug. “I don’t think the NFL wants to get involved in federal jurisdiction areas,” Kluwe says.

Other sources more or less had the same thing to say, while pointing out that the NFL isn’t likely to be on the forefront of any social or scientific shift. The general consensus was that the same league that fought CTE-related research tooth and nail and freaked out over a draft pick being gay is not an organization that people should expect change from.

But then again, merely removing cannabis from the league’s banned substance list is a lot different than promoting marijuana. And just because something is illegal doesn’t mean an employer has to test for it, as tons of workplaces around the country do not test their employees for substances, regardless of their legality. 

“They don’t have to come out and endorse marijuana and have Roger Goodell standing in front of a 20 foot banner of a marijuana leaf,” former Broncos receiver Nate Jackson says. “It [taking cannabis off the banned substances list] can be part of a more complete wellness package that allows more options. I think the NFL could do it in a way that wasn’t gratuitous and didn’t alert any of the Reefer Madness crowd that it is going to be open season for stoners.”

Another theory is that the marijuana policy isn’t about the drug itself, it’s really about worker control.

Former Cardinals and Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer says that the league maintains the status quo “to show that they’re ultimately the ones who control everything,” and that the NFL isn’t “willing to go back and adjust something that the players and the league agreed upon just because it’s stamped in stone.” Adhering to this record of consistency helps the league “remain the all-powerful decision-making entity that controls everything,” Plummer says. “And they don’t want to lose power.” 

Jim McMahon

After laying out this idea, Plummer points out that the NFL only thinks it would be ceding power in changing the rules. In reality, “They’d be creating compassion, and I think showing that they care about the game and the players.”

While discussing the worker control theory, Kluwe believes that if the league were to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances, “The NFL is going to want something in return.”

In the past, the NFL has casually floated the idea of a longer season with more games in London, which would increase owner profits while tacking on additional workloads for players. So during the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the owners might agree to bump down the marijuana penalty in exchange for some sort of monetary benefit like a longer season or more international games, Kluwe says.

“I think they also look at it [marijuana policy] as a bargaining chip to where they don’t have to change it right now, so they’re not going to,” he says. “But, if they can force the union into some concessions, then they’ll probably use it.”

Heather Jackson is the CEO of The Realm of Caring, a non-profit marijuana advocacy group that partners with CW Hemp to fund research and education on the medical potential of cannabinoids. She notes “there are a lot of theories out there” as to why the league bans cannabis. “And in the wrong circles, you sound completely nuts bringing those things up.”

Jackson claims she has “personally received phone calls from pharmaceutical companies that were threatening.” She states that cannabinoids present a “real issue” for pharma groups who have profited from their current relationship with the NFL. “Because the plant can do so many different things, people may be taking less pharmaceuticals, and that’s not awesome for them [pharma groups].”

While Jackson does not directly accuse the NFL of colluding with big pharma, Jim McMahon did just that. “They want you taking their pills,” the former Chicago Bears quarterback told Sports Illustrated in July. “I think they’re in cahoots with big pharma. My whole career they were pushing pills on me. For whatever aliment you had, they had a pill for it and that’s the reason they’re demonizing this plant they way they are.” McMahon, it should be noted, played on the same Super Bowl XX winning team with Dave Duerson, the safety who took his own life in 2011 with a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the chest. Duerson sent a text to family requesting they study his brain at the Boston University School of Medicine. It was confirmed in May of that year that Duerson was suffering from CTE. 

McMahon’s accusations make intuitive sense, but then again there may be more innocuous reasons behind current protocols. NFL owners tend to be in their late 60s on average and their generation is more likely to stigmatize marijuana while overlooking the harmful effects of prescription pills merely because they’re legal and perceived to be more acceptable. And according to the Washington Examiner, NFL owners are about 20 percentage points more likely to donate to GOP candidates than Democrat candidates and “owners who lean Republican account for more than 90 percent of political contributions by owners.” Traditionally, Republicans tend to take harder stances against illegal drugs like marijuana. 

Kluwe notes that trying to figure out the NFL’s reasoning for maintaining its current drug policies can turn into “conspiracy theory guesswork.” He then pointed to another NFL-approved substance that could conflict with the league deregulating marijuana – alcohol.

Because marijuana can be viewed as a substitute for alcohol, beer sponsors may want to see the NFL continue to denounce marijuana. And the league has good reason to listen to beer companies given that Anheuser-Busch InBev alone paid $1.4 billion to remain the NFL’s official beer until 2022. “I think that while it may not explicitly be said, I think it’s probably weighing in the NFL’s calculations in terms of ‘OK what are our sponsors going to do,'” Kluwe says.

But then again, allowing players to privately consume marijuana won’t necessarily translate to more marijuana visibility or a decline in beer company sponsorships or people deferring to alcohol as their favorite party drug.

Plummer even envisions a future where once marijuana is nationally legal, cannabis companies could become NFL sponsors. One day we might see advertisements for “Purple Crush Kush” at Minnesota Vikings games he half-jokes.

Of all the theories that came up while reporting this story, “protect the shield” and projecting a “positive public image” came up most often. In other words, the NFL believes it must protect its brand at all costs, and owners may fear that a drug policy alteration would lead to criticism of the brand.

Nate Jackson believes, “The NFL makes its policies according to media sensibility on these issues. And a lot of times you have these old-school sportswriter people who are trying to keep the game as ‘pure’ as they think it should be, whatever that means, based on how they were raised and what they believe a sports league ‘should be,” with no actual understanding or experience as to what it takes to do these jobs and deal with this kind of physical trauma. So the NFL folds to this kind of pressure and ESPN kind of floats the boat there, you know. Until the media softens its stance, then the NFL won’t.”

Media pressure can certainly influence the policies of sports leagues. But the media today takes a much softer stance on players using marijuana than it did even just a handful of years ago. When Ricky Williams got in trouble for smoking marijuana as an active player he was chastised and scapegoated. But today, he’s the subject of a sympathetic Sports Illustrated profile. And there is no shortage of articles from the popular press calling for the NFL to stop punishing players for using marijuana. 

While some people, possibly even some owners, may believe that toning down marijuana-related punishments could tarnish the league’s image, there is also a case to be made that the league is worsening its image every time a player makes headlines for consuming a substance that’s increasingly gaining public acceptance.

“I don’t see any benefit to negative press whenever a player fails a test and is punished,” says retired Ravens tackle Eugene Monroe, the first active NFL player to publicly challenge the league’s marijuana policy.

When asked why the league maintains a policy that punishes for players for using cannabis, Monroe was quite blunt.

“I’m not sure why they continue to maintain archaic policies,” he says.

As you can see, there are several possible reasons why the NFL would want to continue punishing players for using cannabis. Although these theories appear to have face validity, they also have strong counterpoints. Without answers from NFL owners regarding these specific questions, it’s unclear which explanations are the most true or relevant. What is clear though is that the movement of former players pressing for policy change is gaining visibility and that more research is on the horizon.  

pro-marijuana billboard

Research Initiatives
Though the research has been largely piecemeal and some of the studies have been done on animals, there’s already some evidence suggesting that CBD might function as a neuroprotectant, help with inflammation, and improve mood. And back in 2003, the U.S. government issued a patent for the use of cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectans. Because of CBD’s potential in treating and preventing brain injury, pharma company Kannalife has partnered with Temple University researchers to study the effectiveness of CBD in treating CTE.

And in March, The Realm of Caring launched its “When the Bright Lights Fade” campaign to raise money to fund research examining the effectiveness of cannabinoids in treating concussions and head-injury symptoms in NFL players. The campaign brought in $100,000 (most of it donated by Monroe), which was supposed to be used to fund two observational studies – one on current players and one on former players – run by psychiatry professors from University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins.

The former players study is still on track. But the much-talked-about study on current players hasn’t unfolded as planned. The current players study was supposed to launch prior to the season, with the intention of gathering data on a few hundred players. But fewer than five players signed up, which led the researchers to contemplate postponing the study until next season. Ultimately, they decided to gather whatever data they can get, even if it’s just from a few participants, to use as a pilot study.

“We were expecting a higher response,” says Marcel Bonn-Miller, a UPenn researcher co-leading the studies. “We’re not getting it. We think it’s because of the confidentiality issue that the PA raised.”

The confidentiality issue Bonn-Mill referred to is a message the NFLPA sent to its members, cautioning players that the study could be at risk of a confidentiality breach. Though the study had IRB approval, the researchers had received confidentiality certificates, and this kind of legal overreach would be incredibly rare and possibly even unprecedented in academia, NFLPA lawyers feared the league could hypothetically subpoena the researchers for their data, which could hypothetically lead to punishment for players who admitted in the study to using cannabis.

“We did not stand in the way of them doing it [the research],” Atallah says. “It was our obligation to tell our members that there were concerns with the confidentiality. … We could have theoretical discussions round and round about how nobody in academia has had this happen before. But we’re still dealing with the NFL. That’s our reality.”

Aside from the academic cannabinoid studies, another study is being funded by cannabis extract producer Constance Therapeutics that will examine the ability of cannabis to treat NFL players’ pain. But unlike the university researchers’ cannabinoid studies, Constance Therapeutics is looking at the whole plant, which means the extracts they use in their study will contain much higher levels of THC.

Constance Therapeutics is funding the study themselves, which will cost between $250,000 to $300,000, says founder and CEO Constance Finley. The Gridiron Cannabis Coalition is helping recruit participants for the study, and Finley predicts there will be about 30 former NFL players enrolled in the study.

Given the small sample sizes and convenience sampling techniques involved in these studies, their generalizability could be limited. But then again, since this area of medicine remains so unexplored, the smallest of steps could still really advance our scientific understanding of CBD and cannabis extracts. And it may be these baby steps in science that eventually force the league to reconsider its position.  

Marcell Dareus

What Will it Take for Change?
Atallah says that the union has been in touch with Monroe and a handful of other current and former players “on a fairly regular basis, as often as once a week” to discuss the league’s drug policies and that their conservations “have been enlightening as to how we relate to the issue of pain management.” He stressed that the union sees a major difference between “recreational use versus the pain management medical use,” adding, “the issue of pain management is where we are focusing our energy.”

Although he would not specify an exact date, Atallah says that within the next few weeks the union will be “forming a new committee under our Mackey-White Health and Safety Committee to look at this issue of pain management, and marijuana is going to be one of those issues.” Committee members will include active and former players as well as medical researchers. Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, the only active player publicly challenging the league’s marijuana policy, confirmed that he will serve on the committee.

“I had some discussions with the PA, and we were just trying to brainstorm as far as finding a way to look into this and have players’ support, but at the same time protecting players from any negative backlash or anything,” Morgan said. “The idea came about of making a pain management committee for finding additional [pain relief] resources outside of what’s just available to them in the training room. … I feel like it’s my responsibility as a father and as a husband to be proactive about my health. It just happens that this thing [medical cannabis] that I think could be a benefit is a schedule 1 drug.”

Atallah indicates what may be needed to spur change when he states, “If indeed there is an overwhelming amount of research in the medical community that says that this [medical cannabis] can help players, then at that point, we can go the NFL and advocate for a change in the policies.”

Monroe is more emphatic when he mentions that the league and the players’ union will “need data points to change policy,” a sentiment that was echoed by nearly every source in this story. But several sources said that a major hurdle is getting access to more players to increase the studies’ sample sizes.

Most of the former players interviewed speculated that the league won’t negotiate its marijuana policy until the next CBA in 2021. But Atallah believes that “our drug policies are constantly evolving” and that it is “absolutely” possible to see a change before the next CBA. He notes that the marijuana policy was revised in 2014, even though the last CBA took place in 2011. (In 2014, the threshold for a positive test was increased from 15 ng/ml to 35 ng/ml, which appears to be a significant mathematical difference until you consider that the thresholds in the Olympics and MLB are much more lax.)

While scientific data can sway public opinion, real change ultimately relies with the owners, as they hold the real power in the league. As Plummer puts it, “Change can happen pretty quickly if we get the owners on our side.” But trying to gauge how NFL owners perceive marijuana testing can easily turn into an exercise of pure speculation.

When Monroe retired, the franchise he played for went out of its way to point out, “The Ravens did not rally behind the cause.” Meanwhile, when Morgan spoke about the potential health benefits of cannabis, his team released a more encouraging statement: “While we will decline comment on the content of his statements, we respect Derrick a great deal, and we believe our players always have the right to express their viewpoints on topics about which they are passionate.”

There are many possible explanations for the differences in tone, and one may be that Morgan’s narrative – solely emphasizing that medical cannabis needs to be researched more – is currently more politically palatable than Monroe’s narrative that the league needs to drop cannabis from its banned substance list altogether. Regardless, Bleacher Report quoted an NFL owner saying, “Most owners view marijuana as a destructive drug.” But in another article, Bleacher Report also quoted an NFL executive who said that testing for marijuana is “silly” and “humiliating.” According to these reports, owners and team executives have a wide range of opinions on marijuana testing. But if scientific data or shifts in public opinion don’t persuade the majority of owners to adopt a change, what would?

“The possibility of being sued is always very effective in swaying the NFL,” Nate Jackson says, in reference to suits being filed by former players accusing the league of recklessly prescribing painkillers.

While the contingent that is pressing the league to stop testing players for marijuana has a lot of hope pinned on upcoming research, it isn’t clear if CBD really will prove to be an effective treatment for pain or head injuries. But even if CBD (or cannabis in general for that matter) doesn’t display statistically valid healing capabilities, the league will still face pressure to alter its banned substance list as long as its doctors continue to recommend substances that are much more powerful and addictive than marijuana.

“The medicine being pumped into these guys is just killing people,” Nate Jackson says. “NFL owners think marijuana is something players do to get around the system, not knowing that it’s actually allowing them to be in the system. It’s allowing them to deal with the rigors of the game.”

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