- Written by Javier Hasse
I’m meeting up with a huge—massive, actually—former National Football League player. He’s smiling, clearly doing fine, not in acute pain. We’re here to talk about weed, maybe even share a joint. “Thanks for meeting me,” he says. “We really need to get this story out there. The best way to get things done is through a collaborative effort.”
This footballer’s story goes something like this: At one point during his career, he suffered a serious injury that required surgery. His coach wanted him to get back on the field as soon as possible, so he opted for a shorter rehabilitation period than the one recommended. He asked his doctor for strong painkillers to deal with the “discomfort.”
“Strong painkillers,” of course, is a synonym for prescription opioids, which are now at the center of a national health crisis. Opioids do help curb pain, but relief comes at a high cost. They’re addictive and have side effects that range from vomiting to respiratory depression. They also take between 15,000 and 20,000 American lives from each year.
After months of uncomfortable symptoms, a friend of the NFL player suggested he ease his pain with cannabis, so he gave it a shot. It was extremely effective in reducing his soreness, its side effects imperceptible. Unsurprisingly, the NFL was not happy with him using a drug classified as Schedule I by the Drug Enforcement Agency, so the $2.5 billion organization gave him an ultimatum: quit cannabis or quit football.
This is the story I heard numerous times while reporting on how the NFL is coming to terms with marijuana’s increasing favorability and legalization at a time when the league is under deep scrutiny for subjecting its players to more injuries such as concussions. In 2017, more NFL players were diagnosed with concussions than in the previous five years, with 281 cases, according to Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. But it’s not only head and brain injuries; footballers routinely suffer a range of medical issues and procedures, from knee surgeries to shoulder injuries to anxiety. No matter the diagnosis, however, the treatment always seems to be the same: pharmaceutical drugs.
This January, a few weeks after legalized adult use of recreational marijuana took effect in California, Green Roads World, an online seller of CBD oil products, announced it had partnered with the North American Premier Basketball League, a minor sports league. Starting this year, the CBD supplier will work with the NAPB to advise on CBD-based treatments for sports injuries. This relationship is groundbreaking, as it is non-existent in major league sports.
As Eben Britton, a former offensive tackle with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Chicago Bears, tells me, “I suffered a long list of injuries throughout my career, from dislocating my shoulder and sciatica to torn muscles and ligaments all over my body. Every guy in the league suffers these kinds of injuries and the way it’s handled is handfuls, bottles and vials of opiates like Vicodin and Percocet and anti-inflammatories, which are toxic on the body.”
Painkillers affected Britton’s liver, kidneys and digestive system. They made him feel “crazy or really angry,” caused insomnia and brought about “hideous withdrawal symptoms,” he says. “I woke up at three in the morning with sweat, chills and pain in my stomach.”
“Opioids nearly killed me. Cannabis pulled me out of a dark place when the NFL dream died.”
Eugene Monroe, a former offensive tackle with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens, began experiencing pain around 2006, while playing college football. As with many footballers, Monroe suffered a knee injury that required surgery. After his operation, doctors prescribed him opioids and anti-inflammatories, he tells Playboy. “When I look back at my pharmaceutical drug use while playing ball, and especially since I hurt my knee in 2006, I’ve been on a steady regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs and intermittent one of pain killers, muscle relaxers and a multitude of different prescribed medicines to push through what was the aftermath of my injury.”
Growing up, Monroe was firmly opposed to marijuana, having seen people go to jail for it. “But, as I came to see how many people benefitted from it, I had to put what I believed in the backburner and get educated on its benefits, all around,” he says. “I quickly came to the realization that it was something that could have real applications for athletics.” Drugs like Cataflam and high injectable doses of Toradol caused Monroe, as one might expect, undesirable side effects. “For me, it was lethargy and fatigue. I found myself in meetings needing to sip on coffee just to stay awake,” he says. Furthermore, the pills generated gastrointestinal issues, creating the need to take “more pills to cover up the symptoms that the pain pills were causing.”
Many of the injured players I talked to said they had requested permission from the NFL to medicate with cannabis. The League’s Jeff Sessions-approved response was always the same: Athletes don’t smoke weed.
There is some truth to the idea that “jocks don’t really smoke,” Ricky Williams, a former running back for the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Toronto Argonauts and Baltimore Ravens, tells me at Viridian Capital Advisors’ Cannabis Investment Series at New York City’s John Jay School of Criminal Justice. “Growing up in Southern California, cannabis was always around. But I was a jock, so I didn’t really smoke. Even in college, I didn’t partake in smoking very often,” he says.
The thing is, smoking is not the only way to consume cannabis. A large percentage of medicinal users don’t smoke the plant but rather recur to ingestion methods like edibles or vaporizing. “This is important because there is a lack of education and knowledge around weed. We know in this day and age that smoking is becoming the least prominent method of cannabis ingestion; it’s a thing of the past,” Monroe says.
“The player’s association is backing the players, defending that this is not a recreational or drug-abuse issue. It’s a health issue.”
Seattle-based cannabis analytics firm Headset reports that, in states where cannabis is only available to medical marijuana card holders like Illinois and Michigan, flower sales account for less than 50 percent of total sales. Furthermore, a large percentage of these buds are later vaporized or cooked, according to Cy Scott, Headset’s CEO, and data scientist Pradyumna Reddy. Edibles account for at least 21 percent of sales in most states and concentrates have also seen spikes in demand recently, suggesting that an increasing number of patients are looking for “cleaner” alternatives.
Consumer Research Around Cannabis shared an even more extensive data set. As per a survey conducted in 25 domestic markets, almost 60 percent of all purchases and 54 percent of dollars spent are tied to topicals, edibles, concentrates and drinks, proving smoke-free product categories are in higher demand than smokable weed. Green Flower Media, which has one of the largest databases of cannabis consumers and specializes in cannabis education, reports that more than 45 percent of users prefers methods like edibles. Twenty-two percent use completely non-psychoactive forms, such as tinctures. “We live in a brand new world for cannabis and most people don’t realize you never have to smoke anything to get the benefits,” Green Flower Media CEO Max Simon tells me. “It’s one of the reasons why so many new people are open to giving it a try, and why so many people are finding a delivery method that truly works for them.”
I also spoke with Dr. Bryan Doner, a practicing physician active in the medical cannabis community and the cofounder of Compassionate Certification Centers. A passionate supporter of medicinal cannabis use, Doner says, “athletes should have the right to pursue [it] if it is medically appropriate and legal in their respective state.” As of this year, cannabis use is legal in 29 states, in at least one form. “I am proud of the athletes who have led the way for medical cannabis to be integrated and allowed into their respective sporting communities,” he adds.
In order to show just how effective cannabis has been in treating sports injuries, I spoke to numerous football players, in addition to Britton, Monroe and Williams, about their ailments and treatments. When I conceived this story, I imagined only a few former players would come forward to talk publicly about a subject as controversial as marijuana use in sports. But the response was overwhelming, and as these excerpts from my interviews prove, consensus for the League to embrace medicinal cannabis is, like the legal weed market, growing faster than ever.
EBEN BRITTON, FORMERLY JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS AND CHICAGO BEARS
“Cannabis eased my pain, but also put me in a state of healing and relief. It relieved my anxiety and the stress of being injured and unable to compete in this highly-competitive environment that I’ve been grooming myself for during my entire life.”
RICKY WILLIAMS, FORMERLY NEW ORLEANS SAINTS, MIAMI DOLPHINS, TORONTO ARGONAUTS, BALTIMORE RAVENS
“Unlike traditional medicine that just makes everything magically better, cannabis requires some consciousness and some effort, supplementing it with other wellbeing-oriented activities like acupuncture or yoga. I like to talk about my life experience in the hopes that other people with some level of celebrity are willing to be honest about their experience with cannabis and get the word out so other people feel more comfortable telling their story, coming out of the closet.”
LEONARD MARSHALL, FORMERLY NEW YORK GIANTS, NEW YORK JETS AND WASHINGTON REDSKINS; TWO-TIME SUPER BOWL CHAMPION
“I tried it [at Louisiana State University, in 1979] and immediately set it aside not knowing that it would come to help me in the latter years of my life. While playing in the National Football League was a tremendous amount of fun, it was also was a costly journey on my body—in particular, with respect to bodily pain, cognitive impairment and/or traumatic brain injury. My dear friend Ryan Kingsbury played a significant role in my introduction to the plant, which has helped me with areas such as pain, short-term memory loss, resistance to light, sleep deprivation and mood swings. I’m a much better person to be around while using CBD.”
JOE MONTANA, FORMERLY SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS AND KANSAS CITY CHIEFS AND FOUR-TIME SUPER BOWL CHAMPION
“Legalization is picking up steam on a global level and I feel like now is the time to spread information about the curing capabilities of this plant. As with any medicine, increased accessibility comes with the need for education.”
MARVIN WASHINGTON, FORMERLY NEW YORK JETS, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS AND DENVER BRONCOS AND SUPER BOWL CHAMPION “We need to look at cannabis as an alternative. We need to look at cannabis and its entourage effect, because it works well with painkillers and anti-inflammatories. What I’m saying is, let’s try, because it’s not some evil weed or the devil’s dandruff, or whatever you want to call it.”
SHAUN SMITH, FORMERLY DALLAS COWBOYS, ARIZONA CARDINALS AND CINCINNATI BENGALS
“NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should allow cannabis use in the for players who would benefit from it for pain management. I’ve seen what opioid abuse can do to someone. My mom once tried to kill herself taking too many pills, but now that she’s off them she is a totally different person. Removing cannabis from the NFL’s banned substances would also improve the overall game because we wouldn’t be losing guys to needless suspensions for ‘substance abuse.'”
GRANT MATTOS, FORMERLY SAN DIEGO CHARGERS, DENVER BRONCOS AND TENNESSEE TITANS
“More studies need to be done to explore cannabis as an alternative to opioid use. Opioids nearly killed me. Cannabis, and a lot of love from friends and family, pulled me out of a very dark place when the NFL dream died.”
As legal cannabis becomes more popular—the entire nation of Canada will legalize weed this July—the question becomes whether these former NFL players think the league, which has suffered declining TV ratings this past season, will soon let players medicate with cannabis in states where it is legal. If not, what do these former players want to tell the League?
“My reason to be involved in cannabis advocacy today is to get the NFL to look at it as an alternative to all the pharmaceutical drugs they give us, as well as what it can do for concussions and CTE, helping players heal their brains and enjoy some quality of life after football,” says Britton, who cofounded Athletes For Care, an organization dedicated to providing resources for former athletes transitioning back into life after sports.
“People often say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well, the time is now to start looking at other solutions, other options,” he says. “Cannabis is probably the best solution for the two biggest issues facing the League right now: concussions and CTE. The opioid epidemic will only grow from here unless we either remove marijuana from the banned substances list or adopt a policy like the NHL, which does not test for it and is not concerned with marijuana use as long as there are no off-the-field issues.”
“I’m pretty much demanding, in a way, that the NFL removes cannabis from its banned substances list,” says Monroe, the former Ravens player. “They also need to spend some of the money they committed to research to causes that might actually benefit. The NFL should restructure their entire pain management system, to stop forcing players who got hurt to take addictive, pharmaceutical drugs,” he continues. “In a sport where pain is common and players are just expected to deal with it, take pills and go on playing, cannabis can prove beneficial.”
When asked what he would want to say to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Marshall provided me an open letter:
During my 12 years at the National Football League I tolerated an awful lot of stress and pain as a result of the endurance it takes to play this game at an extremely high level, for a long period of time. I was involved in five Divisional titles, two Conference championships, three Pro Bowls, four All NFL [teams] and four All Madden Teams. [I was twice named] Defensive Lineman of the Year, and MVP of the New York Giants on three occasions—just to name a few accomplishments.
I mention this to show exactly how tough it is to play this game on high-level over a long period of time. While doing so, I never anticipated having traumatic brain injury or deep complications with respect to pain. While playing the game, I undervalued the use of HEMP due to my ignorance associated with the plant. If I were in your shoes, I would consider a strategy and a program that can educate the future of professional football about the medicinal use of the hemp plant as an anti-inflammatory, as well as the use of medicinal marijuana.
Thus far, the closest sign of a potential shift in the NFL’s policies comes by way of a July 2017 Washington Poststory which reported that the League had reached out to the NFL Players Association about working in tandem to research cannabis’ potential in pain management. But those conversations have yet to be confirmed in an official capacity. As the Post reported at the time, “The NFLPA is conducting its own study and, according to those familiar with the deliberations, is yet to respond to the NFL’s offer to cooperate on marijuana-related research.”
Even so, Washington acknowledges this suggests a larger backdrop of progress. “Whenever there is a safety issue within an industry, it’s the union that spurs the changes,” he says. Williams adds, “The player’s association is backing the players in the cannabis issue, defending the view that this is not a recreational or drug abuse issue; it’s a health issue.”
“For years, it was a matter of if cannabis would be allowed by the NFL,” sasy Washington. “Now, it’s only a matter of when.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mis-attributed one of Eben Britton’s quotes to Joe Montana. It was Britton who said, “Cannabis eased my pain. It also put me in a state of healing and relief,” not Montana. Playboy regrets the error.