Column: Get with the times, NFL: Cannabis, CTE and the commissioner’s (lack of) care

Posted on May 4 2017 - 8:00am by Grayson Weir

In the past month, the NFL draft has dominated football headlines and consumed the minds of analysts, commentators and fans alike. Hidden in the shadows of men in suits securing their futures is the recent discussion of the cannabis plant, marijuana and cannabidiol (CBD) within the National Football League.

It’s no secret that the narrative toward what was once deemed “the devil’s lettuce” has changed throughout the nation. Transitioning from a staunch hardline against the legalization, 25 states now allow some form of cannabis usage, eight (and the District of Columbia) allowing it to be sparked without a doctor’s prescription.

Seemingly, the narrative hasn’t changed for Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL. *Insert ferocious boos*

On the Friday of the draft, Goodell took to ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” with comments so prehistoric that even Richard Nixon rolled over in his grave. Telling ESPN Radio that the league sees no medical benefits, he added that, “It may not be healthy for the players long-term.”

Yes, you read that right— the league sees no medical benefits. That’s just a futile, business-centric thing to say.

Common sense would assume that if medical marijuana patients are using the cannabis plant to ease pain, headaches and other ailments, then a professional football player who repeatedly uses his body as a battering ram would also find relief in lighting a therapeutic post-game doobie.

The alternative, painkillers (which the NFL conglomerates don’t bat an eye toward), is causing an epidemic.

A study conducted by researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine found that 52 percent of the retired players said they used prescription pain medication during their playing days. Of those, 71 percent said they misused the drugs then, and 15 percent of the misusers acknowledged misusing the medication within 30 days of the study.

Yet Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson is facing a 10-game suspension for a second violation of the league’s substance abuse policy after being prescribed medicinal marijuana to treat his Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract.

But since Goodell throws common sense by the wayside, I will, too. Let’s dig deeper.

The late Junior Seau, one of the league’s most famous, best and beloved linebackers, took his own life in May 2012. Autopsy results showed Seau suffered from chronic brain damage, testing positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease often associated with repeated head trauma that can lead to dementia and depression. Seau’s passing is an extreme case, but the issue of CTE is something the NFL needs to address.

In 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University identified the degenerative disease in 96 percent of the players they examined and 79 percent of all football players. Those numbers are something of severity, and the usage of cannabis, more specifically cannabidiol, might be the answer.

Cannabidiol, a compound extracted from cannabis, is proving to have significant health benefits but does not leave people feeling “stoned.” While primarily reducing inflammation and pain, CBD is shown to have an antipsychotic effect and treat seizures and neurological disorders, which has caught the attention of many players, both past and present.

Former New York Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall is one of the many players to speak out on the topic, having been diagnosed CTE in 2013.

“I was prescribed seriously intense prescription drugs for my CTE […] I just didn’t feel like myself,” Marshall said in an interview last month. “Then, I heard reports that studies suggested CBD could help prevent symptoms like irritability, aggression and motor impairment. […] I was initially reluctant, because I didn’t want to add another substance to my system, and I’m not into getting high. When I found out that CBD doesn’t have the side effects of THC, I decided to try it.”

Marshall was so impressed by how he felt after using CBD, he has recently become an ambassador for Elixinol, a global CBD company with U.S.-based operations in Colorado, and an advocate for the usage of cannabidiol in the NFL.

“I found with CBD I had a higher pain threshold, I felt calm and finally, I felt ‘Leonard could be Leonard’ again,” he said.

While Marshall is just one example, he is not alone. Players like ex-Raven Eugene Monroe, famed personality quarterback Jim McMahon and former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who started taking CBD oil last year to deal with nagging headaches, are among those to speak out.

Should you need a more credible voice, just hop over to a new tab and type in “CBD CTE.” From Lester Grinspoon, a professor emeritus at Harvard, to Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Julius Axelrod, you’ll find a plethora of experts echoing positive sentiments. Some even go so far as to say the fact that CBD could possibly be a neuroprotective for CTE-prone athletes is something “everyone in sports and medicine should embrace,” like retired Col. Phillip Blair (U.S. Army), M.D., a U.S.-based CBD expert.

Nevertheless, Roger Goodell’s head is – well, to put it lightly – somewhere it shouldn’t be.

Of course, I understand the league’s narrative is not going to magically change overnight. My head is not where Goodell’s is. And I understand there is a historically negative stigma toward marijuana that is the economic driving the force behind the lack of advancement toward removing it from the league’s outlandish, outdated substance abuse policy.

However, I also understand the times, the medicinal benefits and the fact that retired players are living with severe brain trauma.

Thus, my confusion lies in the compassion for players, of which there is none. I could get behind Goodell’s opposition if there truly were no medicinal benefit. But it is beyond known that the cannabis plant has medical benefits, especially for the NFL players who are desperately in need.

Mr. Commissioner, I compel you to put money and politics aside and instead let facts and science drive the league’s policy on marijuana, cannabis and CBD.