Banned, but Bountiful: Marijuana Coveted by NFL Players as Invaluable Painkiller

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Banned, but Bountiful: Marijuana Coveted by NFL Players as Invaluable Painkiller
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Jamal Anderson was a talented NFL running back with a bruising style who rushed for over 5,000 yards while playing for the Atlanta Falcons. It was a more physical league during Anderson's time, and he retired in 2001 after an eight-year playing career. It was nastier. More punishing. More measures taken by players to ease the pain of playing in the sport. 

Anderson remembers the prevalent use of marijuana when he was in the game. It was used for enjoyment but also as treatment for the aches and bruises caused by professional football.

"When I played, 40 to 50 percent of the league used it," Anderson said recently.

Anderson stays in regular contact with players now, and he believes the number of NFL players who use marijuana has grown significantly since he was a Falcon. He's not alone. Current players say marijuana use in the sport is extensive, with many using the drug to deal with the ramifications of head trauma. One player said in an interview he believes smoking marijuana helped prevent him from attempting suicide.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Jamal Anderson, shown in a 1999 photo, says he'd put the percentage of marijuana users in today's NFL at 60 percent, at least.

"It's at least 60 percent now," Anderson said. "That's bare minimum. That's because players today don't believe in the stigma that older people associate with smoking it. To the younger guys in the league now, smoking weed is a normal thing, like having a beer. Plus, they know that smoking it helps them with the concussions."

Interviews over the course of the past month with 16 current players revealed an NFL world where players who have not failed an NFL drug test, and therefore aren't subjected to multiple tests, smoke weed weekly after games and occasionally after tough regular-season practices.

Some of these players said many of their teammates and opponents smoke marijuana three to four times a week, depending on the time of season and the physicality of practices and games.

None of the 16 players wanted to be identified, and by no means was this survey even close to scientific. But the results aren't hard to believe. Ten said at least 50 percent use regularly (regularly was defined as two to three times a week). Two said 10 percent, two said 70 percent and one refused to quantify but said "a s--tload." One player who said he does not use marijuana put the number of users at 10 to 15 percent. The other 15 players said they did smoke.

With approximately 1,700 players in the sport, even by the most conservative estimate of 10 percent, that is still 170 players who use pot. If the number is 50 percent or, as Anderson said, even 60 or higher, the number climbs above 850 players.

What's clear is that numerous players smoke weed. Some because they like it. Some because it helps them deal with the rigors of football. Some because they believe marijuana helps ease the crushing and kaleidoscopic effects of concussions. All of this is done right under the nose of the league.

The marijuana discussion in the NFL has become more important than ever. The NFL is in the midst of a concussion crisis in which science increasingly says concussive and subconcussive impacts can cause long-term brain trauma. The problem has become so concerning for players that two—linebacker Chris Borland and offensive tackle Anthony Davis—made the unprecedented move of retiring in their 20s in part due to concern about potential brain injuries.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The 49ers' Anthony Davis is dropping out of the league at age 25 to give his "Brain and Body a chance to heal."

Davis tweeted he will be back in "a year or so," but his original statement, per NFL.com, was clear on his motivations for putting a lucrative NFL career on pause at age 25:

After a few years of thought, I've decided it will be best for me to take a year or so away from the NFL. This will be a time for me to allow my Brain and Body a chance to heal. I know many won't understand my decision, that's ok.

I hope you too have the courage to live your life how you planned it when day dreaming to yourself growing up. Your Life is Your dream and you have the power to control that dream. I'm simply doing what's best for my body as well as my mental health at this time in my life.

Jason Cole of Bleacher Report emphasized that, according to a source, concussions were the primary factor in Davis' decision.

The combination of this increasing concern with "Brain and Body" and the testimony from players and other interested parties about the healing effects of marijuana have put the drug in the spotlight. But don't expect the NFL to sanction its use, even under legalized circumstances, any time soon.

In the meantime, the league is not doing much to stop the smoking.

 

Getting Around the Drug Testing

How could so many players smoke marijuana and not get caught by the NFL, which tests for it?

The collective bargain agreement states that players not in the substance-abuse program due to a violation are subject to one test for substances of abuse, including marijuana, from April 20 through Aug. 9. But to save costs, one team union official explained, much of the testing is done during training camp because all of the players are in one place.

Then a player is not tested again until the following year. The only way that would change is if someone is stupid enough to smoke near, or during, that predictable testing window.

"You know when the test is," one player said, who is also a union official. "Once you pass it, you can do as much as you want all year."

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
According to court testimony, Aaron Hernandez was a regular marijuana user during his playing days with the Patriots.

This may explain why Aaron Hernandez was able to smoke so much marijuana, according to court testimony during his murder trial, per Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, and likely not get caught. A league source says Hernandez was not in Stage 1 of the testing program.

The players interviewed, as well as several assistant coaches, said they believe the NFL and union have a "wink-wink type deal," as one player put it, where both sides actually don't want tougher marijuana testing because they believe so many players would flunk tests. (The NFL and union deny any type of secret arrangement.)

"If you tested the players during the season every week," one assistant coach said, "we wouldn't be able to field a league. We'd have to merge with the CFL."

If a player is in the testing program, the system becomes almost impossible to beat. Any player who is caught is then subject to testing up to 10 times per month.

 

Players Speak of Medical Benefits

Though not selected for that reason, 15 of the 16 players I surveyed said they smoke pot. All described using marijuana for medicinal purposes, while four said they also used it for recreational reasons. All 15 said they used pot after games to ease the soreness and injuries. They described smoking marijuana to calm the pain of sore ribs or a bruised thigh. None would say where they purchased the marijuana or how many ounces a week they smoke.

Players said they never smoked on the team's premises. One player described how after home games, his wife would always prepare the marijuana to smoke, and they'd smoke it together, often while watching Game of Thrones or Mad Men on DVR.

One player said marijuana ended what he described as a borderline drinking problem. Another said past chronic knee and shoulder issues were almost gone. Not a single player said he knew of players getting high during games (though over the years in speaking to players on the issue, I have heard tales of this happening).

Another player was asked to describe his routine on the days he blazed. The most physical day of the week for him was Wednesday practice. After practice he'd go home, walk up a flight of stairs, go into a room where he kept all of his football-related items (trophies, etc.), grab his bag of marijuana off a shelf, roll it, smoke it, watch television. Then he'd study tape and go to bed "pain-free." He did this same routine after games.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Players say that for some in the NFL, marijuana is part of a weekly ritual to handle the rigors of an NFL game week.

When speaking to players, they describe weed use the way others describe drinking a glass of wine with dinner. There is a matter-of-factness about it. There are no tales of abuse, only—and this is the best word to describe it—relief. Players view marijuana as a savior, as key to their survival in the sport as a good quarterback or smart head coach.

All players said over the past several seasons they used marijuana extensively after head trauma, namely concussions.

"Smoking allowed me to recover from my concussion faster and with a lot less side effects," one veteran linebacker said.

There is support outside of the NFL for the notion of marijuana helping with concussions. A Harvard emeritus professor of psychiatry, Lester Grinspoon, posted a letter on Vice recommending the NFL support the study of marijuana as a concussion antidote.

Google "marijuana and concussions" and you'll see plenty of marijuana proponents attesting to the drug's benefits to alleviate a concussion's symptoms and even permanent effects.

But the players I spoke with don't need scientific evidence in light of their personal experiences.

The veteran linebacker said that early in his career, when he'd get a concussion, he didn't use the drug. "One time I had a really bad concussion," he said. "The headaches went on for three days. I always tell people that I understood why some guys with head trauma want to take their own lives. It's miserable."

It was then, the player said, that an NFL team trainer asked him to use marijuana. The trainer told the player not to inform anyone on the team or tell anyone from the NFL. The player believes marijuana use extended his career and not only helped heal concussions faster but also may have helped him prevent a suicide attempt due to repetitive head trauma.

 

Painkillers vs. Pot

The elephant in the room is that players believe marijuana is safer than NFL-allowed painkiller drugs, which have potentially destructive side effects and can cause severe addiction. Prescribed anti-pain narcotics killed over 16,000 people in 2010 alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control, as noted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's John Fauber.

Players interviewed said the pot debate is intertwined with the NFL's use of painkillers; you cannot effectively talk about one without mentioning the other.

Stacy Thacker/Associated Press/Associated Press
Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon spoke to the media about the perils of painkillers in the wake of a federal class-action lawsuit filed by former NFL players.

If weed is indeed a safer alternative to painkilling medication, would the NFL ever drop its ban and allow players to use medical marijuana in states where it's legal? Particularly since retired NFL players report massive addiction problems with painkillers more common than the general population, according to a study cited in an ESPN article by John Barr.

"The short answer is no," one NFL owner said. "At least, not soon. No way."

The owner added, "Most owners view marijuana as a destructive drug. Many of us are behind the times when it comes to marijuana."

The owner would not comment on painkiller use, citing pending litigation, such as a suit hundreds of former players filed in May. The owner did say, however, something that is often repeated in private among players, coaches and management.

"I'm not sure you could field a league without the use of these [painkillers]," the owner said.

Former Saints player Scott Fujita said this in a 2013 interview with Patrick Hruby of Sports on Earth:

I've always been concerned about the use, overuse and in some cases, mismanagement and abuse of painkillers among us. Generally, I tried to avoid using painkillers if I could get by without them, because I was always concerned about creating a dependency or an addiction. But I've had to rely on drugs of some kind quite a bit throughout my career, whether it's Toradol, other NSAIDs, Vicodin, Percocet. And even though I would consider my use much less than that of many others, I still feel like I've put way too many harmful materials in my body to play this game.

Anderson said that a number of players from the time he played are addicted to pain pills. "Not a few guys," he said. "A lot of guys."

"I don't know how an NFL doctor or trainer tells a player, especially a rookie, 'Don't smoke weed but take these pain pills,'" Anderson said. "It makes no sense."

 

Policy Change Would Be Slow

Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league would follow the science when it came to marijuana and the NFL.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The official stance of Roger Goodell and the NFL on pot is that they defer to their medical experts' recommendations, and those experts aren't recommending medical marijuana.

"I'm not a medical expert. 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," Goodell said in January 2014. "Our medical experts are not saying that right now."

The problem is, almost no one believes the NFL will allow use of the drug medicinally anytime soon. The belief is the league will continue to prohibit use of the drug through this collective bargaining agreement, which runs through 2021. If the two sides wanted, they could agree to strike the marijuana testing policy before the end of the agreement. But you would see Goodell smoking a blunt before that happened.

One former longtime team executive said that "ownership as currently constituted will not allow marijuana use...this group won't allow it.

"I believe that players should be able to use it for pain management. Would you rather a loved one smoke a joint, or pop tremendously addictive, strong narcotics? It's silly—we'll give you Toradol, etc., but not dope—no, not dope, that's a drug. Dumb....

"The problem, of course, is that it's illegal in most states—so although I think that players should be able to use it, saying 'OK' would be condoning the breaking of the law in most states. So, instead, the league would probably just have to look away."

(Medicinal use of marijuana is legal in 23 states, according to this interactive guide on CNN.com. One player imagined an NFL world where pot was OK in certain states: There would be dozens, if not hundreds of players, who would pool their resources and rent vans or corporate aircraft to fly midweek to the cooperating states.)

Said one veteran player: "It took [the NFL] four months to decide if someone took air out of a football. Could you imagine how long it would take to figure out a way to allow medical weed?"

Various NFL sources say one necessary step would be a transition in team ownership. That group would have to get younger, with more owners who either used marijuana or aren't offended by it. But ownership rarely changes hands rapidly, even from owner to offspring.

There are some owners and coaches who would seem to have no issue with marijuana use in football. In 2012, Texans owner Bob McNair said, according to Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle, that there were three types of players he would not tolerate on the Texans: "someone who abuses women, someone who is a habitual user of drugs and someone who rebels against authority," Ganguli wrote.

Then McNair elaborated on the drug comment: "The second thing is if there's been substance-abuse," he said. "That can become a habit, and they might bring that habit with them. I'm not talking about someone who smoked marijuana. I'm talking about a persistent user of drugs. We take them off the list."

The marijuana comment could be seen as McNair endorsing its usage in the sport. McNair hasn't since spoken publicly on that topic.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said stigmas shouldn't be a barrier to doing what's best for players.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll in 2014, after Goodell's comments, agreed with the commissioner that the science should be followed, but he seemed also to be saying medical marijuana is fair game for consideration as an allowable drug.

"I would say that we have to explore and find ways to make our game a better game and take care of our players in whatever way possible," Carroll said in a news conference , as ESPN.com's Dan Graziano reported. "Regardless of what other stigmas might be involved, we have to do this because the world of medicine is doing this."

Figures like McNair and Carroll seem to be in the minority, at least publicly. No other owner, in particular, has given even a pseudo-endorsement of the drug's usage.

 

The NFL's Official Stance

The NFL, in response to my reporting for this story, released a statement to Bleacher Report. It read in part:

"On the issue of medical marijuana, the medical advisors to our drug program tell us that there is no need for medical marijuana to be prescribed to an NFL player."

The league added several other points:

• Non-medical marijuana usage is a violation of federal law in every state other than Washington and Colorado.

• After the referendum in those two states, the NFL Players Association sent a memo to remind the players that it's illegal and prohibited under our policy.

• The NFL has relied on experts on substance-abuse disorders and addiction and has asked them to make recommendations, and to date they haven't recommended any change.

• There are other medications doctors can use for effective treatment of pain.

• If the science shows it, and there is a rigorous process in place to determine that the only drug that could help is medical marijuana, then we would consider allowing it in necessary cases.

Meanwhile, Pot Nation in the NFL goes on.

Former Denver tight end Nate Jackson, who played on the team from 2003 to 2008, spoke on the record about players' marijuana use and the league's knowledge of it.

Dave Einsel/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson has said that marijuana is a good thing, not a bad thing, in the lives of many NFL players.

"They're aware that probably over half of their players smoke weed," Jackson said of the NFL in a report by Arnie Stapleton of the Associated Press (via Huffington Post). "[Players have] been doing it since they were teenagers. The fact that they've been doing it that whole time and still made it to the NFL and are able to satisfy the demands of very, very strict employers on a daily basis means that their marijuana use is in check. Marijuana is not a problem in their lives."

Jackson said in the Sports on Earth article by Hruby:

There were times I had to take a little bit of pain pills. I always had some remaining in bottle. Never refilled a prescription or had to ask for more. In the back of my mind, I knew they were bad for me. But you'd see some guys popping a lot of pills as part of their normal, daily routine. Some guys were ordering big bottles of them. It's a big problem. These guys are set up for a lifetime of addiction. I have non-football player friends dealing with opioid addictions. One is still in denial and one is just coming out of it. It's really, really serious s---.

He also said, in the AP report: "I feel like I exited the game with my mind intact. And I credit that to marijuana in a lot of ways and not getting hooked on these pain pills that are recklessly distributed in the league when a guy gets an injury. ... It kept my brain clean."

"The NFL might as well allow players to smoke it," Anderson told Bleacher Report. "It's better for them. But also because players are smoking it anyway, with or without the league's permission."

 

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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