Several former NFL players recently toured a cannabis facility specializing in cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis known for it’s anti inflammatory and calming effects. As part of the Denver Broncos Alumni Association, they are learning more about how CBD can ease the multiple health conditions that plague them in their retirement.
“Every day, I wake up in pain, from my ankles to my neck,” said Ebenezer Ekuban, a former defensive end who played for nine seasons. “It’s part of the territory. I know what I signed up for.”
The focus of the trip was to learn more about cannabidiol (CBD). Some data suggests that the cannabinoid can help with anxiety, pain, nausea and depression, and the federal government holds a patent on its neuroprotective properties. Newer studies have shown its effectiveness on treating inflammatory conditions.
The real effects of an NFL career have only recently gained some transparency. For decades, medical professionals have been treating pain from physical trauma with prescription drugs, which can include opioid painkillers, NSAID pain relievers and muscle relaxers. The mental demands of professional football can also call for anti-anxiety medications.
Unfortunately, these injuries are not temporary, and retired NFL athletes continue to take these medications years after their career has ended. Opioid painkillers were mainly developed for temporary pain, but these athletes require long-term treatment. A published study found the rate that NFL players consume opioids is four times what the rest of the population consumes. Both opioid painkillers and NSAIDs can cause kidney damage over time, but cannabis could be an alternative to these medications.
“This pain is never going away. My body is damaged,” said Eugene Monroe, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens. “Managing it with pills was slowly killing me. Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of cannabis.”
Monroe was released from his contract three weeks after he openly admitted to using cannabis to treat his injuries. Since then, he has become one of the most vocal proponents of medical marijuana within the NFL community.
Players have had a difficult time convincing owners and NFL officials that cannabis is a safe and effective alternative treatment. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has openly expressed his skepticism of marijuana as medication.
“To date, [NFL medical advisors] haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players,” Goodell said. “If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”
Sue Sisley, a doctor who serves on the advisory board for the Korey Stringer Institute, suggested that the health and safety of the players may not be best served through prescription drugs.
“For instance, these players obviously receive mega-doses of opioids easily from their trainers and team docs. But when they want to seek out what they believe is a safer, less toxic alternative like cannabis, they’re fined and sanctioned.”
Monroe has experienced first hand the benefits of cannabis, and knows the science could support a change in NFL policy. “I would hope that the NFL stands by what it says it stands for — player health and safety, first and foremost,” said Monroe. “…there’s enough info out there right now for the NFL to make a smart decision.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was back in the news, regarding medical marijuana, on Friday’s ESPN radio edition of Mike and Mike. He continued to uphold the NFL’s ban on the use of cannabis by its players to treat pain and traumatic brain injuries, stating that the NFL’s independent medical advisors “to date,” have yet to recommend marijuana as a legitimate medical tool.
However, as the interview shows, Commissioner Goodell does not appear to be up-to-date on either the latest research regarding cannabis use for pain management and traumatic brain injuries or the way regular medical users consume cannabis when he states:
“Listen, you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say. It does have addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long-term.”
Scientists would disagree with his assessment of cannabis use.
A recent 2014 study by researchers at UCLA focused on the outcomes of traumatic brain injuries after “several studies had demonstrated neuroprotective effects of cannabinoids.” The study concludes that “a positive THC screen is associated with decreased mortality in adult patients sustaining TBI.” It is unfortunate that the NFL Commission is seemingly unaware of these protective effects, since “new research on the brains of deceased former football players found high rates of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a degenerative disease believed to stem from repetitive brain injury.”
Additionally, a recent study regarding the uses of “Sativex®, a cannabis derived oromucosal spray containing equal proportions of THC (partial CB1 receptor agonist ) and cannabidiol (CBD, a non-euphoriant, anti-inflammatory analgesic with CB1 receptor antagonist and endocannabinoid modulating effects) was approved in Canada in 2005 for treatment of central neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis, and in 2007 for intractable cancer pain. Numerous randomized clinical trials have demonstrated safety and efficacy for Sativex in central and peripheral neuropathic pain, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer pain. . . treatment of pain shows great promise.”
Effective and safe pain management is an issue the NFL must face head-on as it currently being sued by the NFL Players Association. The suit, representing over 1,800 players, alleges the unfettered and illegal administration and handling of “powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories each season.” The opioid based painkillers the NFL team doctors prescribe are known to be highly addictive which doesn’t seem to concern Commissioner Goodell as much as the slight potential cannabis has for addiction. A recent study “asked more than 8,000 people between the ages of 15 and 64 about their use of marijuana and other drugs.” The researchers concluded that, “although marijuana may be addictive for some, 91 percent of those who try it do not get hooked. Further, marijuana is less addictive than many other legal and illegal drugs.”
Perhaps Commissioner Goodell should visit a medical marijuana dispensary to investigate all the products available to cannabis users that do not involve smoking. The reality is that most medical marijuana patients prefer the reliability in dosing and discreet packing that comes from edibles, teas, tinctures, concentrates like oils, vape cartridges, suppositories, topical lotions and creams, trans-dermal patches and capsules. Yes, the harmful effects of smoking are not up for debate, but to use one method of ingestion as blanket statement against cannabis use is disingenuous and uniformed.
In his ESPN radio interview, Commissioner Goodell did leave room for an eventual shift in the NFL’s stance, stating “medical marijuana is something that is evolving, and that’s something that at some point the medical advisers may come to us and say, ‘This is something you should consider.'” ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith, well-known for his catch phrase, “stay off the weeed,” recently shifted his position on cannabis use in the NFL,
“I must admit that I have been pushed somewhat in a different direction by non athletes who have sworn by it not just for medicinal uses but preventive uses. . . It might be time to re-think things. . . At this point, what choice do we have.”
Perhaps Commissioner Goodell will start listening to his players experiences with medical marijuana and make a shift too.
The NFL has a strict policy on the use of marijuana, but one NFL player is making the argument that it’s not only needed, but a better solution for the consistent ailments that plague professional football players.
“Your job automatically gives you the symptom of chronic pain,” said Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, a member of the NFL since 2009. “You’re hitting each other as hard as possible every single day in practice. Your body is in pain a lot of time.”
Questions are being raised about the NFL’s policies on treating injuries and the chronic conditions they create. The long-term effects of being a professional athlete in the NFL have recently inspired documentaries and movies based on the pressures of the sport, which can cause brain damage, permanent nerve damage, and prolonged body pain associated with injuries and arthritis.
Conventional treatments for these ailments are typically opioid painkillers, corticosteroids and other anti-inflammatory prescription drugs, all of which have long-term side effects. Monroe is making the argument that cannabis is a much safer alternative, especially in light of the opioid epidemic that is affecting the rest of the United States.
“All over our country people are addicted, and that’s happening in our locker rooms,”
Previous NFL players have admitted to using marijuana during their career, as well as in their retirement. “Cannabis has been part of my football experience since I started,” said Nate Jackson, who played in the NFL from 2003 to 2008. “I never liked the pills and medicated with cannabis.”
Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon is using cannabis in his retirement to treat brain damage, early-onset dementia and chronic pain, all of which are associated with his time in the NFL. Of the 100+ Percocet tablets he took per day, McMahon said, “They were doing more harm than good.”
The NFL insists they need more research to determine if there is a medical benefit for their players.
“I agree there has been changes, but not significant enough changes that our medical personnel have changed their view,”
said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “Until they do, then I don’t expect that we will change our view.”
A nonprofit group called Realm of Caring has undertaken the task of researching how cannabis can help NFL players.
In partnership with Johns Hopkins University, Realm of Caring is trying to raise money to conduct more research on the precise ailments of NFL athletes and how cannabis could help their symptoms. Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, wants to explore these options.
“We want to go in and learn as much about the players. Who’s using? What kind of benefit? How does it benefit (players) versus traditional treatments? Are there other associated effects?”
There have been studies indicating that cannabis can help heal the brain, and the U.S. government even holds a patent on the neuroprotective properties of cannabinoids, the chemical compounds responsible for the medicinal efficacy of cannabis. The patent states, “…cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.”
Still, the NFL requires even more data before considering a reversal of their policy on marijuana.
“The NFL will need to have legitimate information before they remove marijuana from the banned substance list and ultimately not hurt their product in the field,”
Monroe said. “But there’s opportunity in that space also, for the NFL to get involved and maybe lead efforts.”