On Marijuana Use in the NFL

Recently, NFL Draft prospect Michael Sam came out as the first potential gay player in the NFL, and, while his announcement is deservedly getting a ton of attention, it has hidden recent comments made by other NFL players in recent weeks.

Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark stated last week that marijuana use in the NFL is quite common, and what’s more interesting is exactly why he said many players medicate with it. Clark, who also stated that he does not smoke the plant, said, “It’s not a situation where you think, ‘Oh, these are guys trying to be cool…’  A lot of it is stress relief. A lot of it is pain and medication. Guys feel like, ‘If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.’ Guys look at this as a more natural way to heal themselves, to stress relieve and also to medicate themselves for pain. Guys are still going to do it.”

Such a quote from an NFL player perfectly sums up why vilifying marijuana use for athletes is ridiculous, especially football players. As we noted in a previous blog, Marijuana Policy Project purchased multiple billboards near the stadium at which the Super Bowl was held that said “Marijuana: Safer than Beer… and Football.” Clark’s statements should be seen as a perfect complement to MPP’s message.

Last August, the NFL recently settled a $765 million lawsuit with its former players due to the league not properly instructing its players about the risks of concussions. Later, a judge rejected that deal that many felt was a steal for the league, as it didn’t have to reveal all the information that the plaintiffs wanted. Concussions are a terrible thing in the NFL, and, while it is probably the most severe and dangerous type of pain that football players regularly endure, it’s no secret that an NFL player’s pain only begins with the head. Multiple retired players have reported undergoing upwards of 20 or more surgeries throughout a seven to eight year career.

It’s no surprise that these men will do whatever it takes to ease that physical burden. Columnist Jason Whitlock and former college player once noted that he felt like he had been in a car crash for 36 hours after every single game, and former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber noted in an interview that he usually “recovered” from a Sunday game on Thursday, sometimes even Friday or Saturday.

Enter Vicodin, enter Oxycontin, enter a lot of things. With a prescription from team doctors that will gladly go along with whatever will get the player back on the field a second or two earlier, these players can get access to whatever helpful but maybe extremely risky prescriptions that they can find. When that pain gets worse, or when a player gets more desperate to earn his paycheck, he might increase the dosage, which can lead to addiction and unhealthy side effects.

Now, when looking through that perspective, why do people have a serious moral issue with athletes medicating marijuana in order to relieve pain?  Fine, maybe you don’t like it, and maybe, just maybe, you feel that no professional athlete should have a free pass to take something that, according to drug warriors, has no accepted medical use (which isn’t actually the case).

But that is looking at the situation in a vacuum, and we can’t look at something like this in a vacuum, not when so many players’ post-retirement years are ruined by numerous injuries or drug addictions. Somehow, NFL management, media, and fans have decided that it’s ok to take whatever legal drugs necessary to get back in the game, no matter how risky, because of cliches like “It’s a grown man’s game,” “Part of the game is sacrificing your body,” or “Whatever gets you back on the field.” Then, when players turn to a plant that has minimal harmful effects down the line (despite former QB Mark Brunell responding to Ryan Clark’s statement by saying that “[marijuana] hurts brain function,” it’s simply not true), we have a moral issue with that.  I would never encourage or even support NFL players smoking or eating marijuana, but should the league really punish for it when it already breeds a culture of pain, violence, life-altering injuries, covering up injuries, and drug addictions?

As far as what will actually happen to marijuana rules in the NFL, well, it won’t become legal for players to smoke it, whether medically or recreationally, at least for a while. This is because it will take some time for the plant to become legal in every state that has an NFL team.  But, as Clark noted in the same interview, the NFL testing policy is extremely lax: “There is one random test during OTAs and minicamps during the offseason (usually late May), and everybody will be tested early in training camp (Late July). After that, there are no more tests.” For a season that starts in September, that’s probably the easiest test to avoid failing ever.

Maybe the NFL really doesn’t care very much their players smoke marijuana, and let’s hope they go the extra mile and fight to make it legal for their players to use it. I’m not supporting any players using or not the plant, and the NFL doesn’t need to endorse it either, but I’d rather have them say that marijuana is permissible than push their employees towards Vicodin and other substances that could easily lower their quality of life after retirement.