Pain Relief: Marijuana and the NFL

January, 2017

Like most Americans, I was raised watching the National Football League. Every Sunday, my family and friends gathered around the television rooting for our favorite football team to win. Today, no matter where I am, I still watch football for the majesty, controlled violence and grace of these modern day gladiators battling in a war of attrition.

Personally, I’m glad to know and have played with some of these tremendous athletes. However, over the years, I heard firsthand accounts of former teammates in the NFL that are addicted to all forms of painkillers, especially opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone, tramadol, vicodin and percocet just to name a few. The constant pain that most of these men played through still affects them post-retirement. The highly addicted drugs they were given to ease their pain during their career are the same drugs they seek to relieve their everyday aches and pains just to get out of bed.

The advent of sports medicine and health nutrition has made the modern day athlete more aware about the proper way to train and what they’re ingesting in their bodies. With more data on the effects of opioids to the body and the brain, there is a push for more natural alternatives to deal with the physical toll of playing in the NFL. These modern day gladiators are pushing the league to approve the use of medicinal marijuana as an alternative method to ease their football related injuries. However, the NFL is blocking this form of pain relief as an alternative. The question remains, if your employees want a milder pain reliever that is not harmful to their bodies and minds, why would you impede that form of medicine?

Marijuana vs. Opioid

Opioids are used as an authorized painkiller in the NFL and are administered by official team trainers to relieve players pain associated with this brutal game. The most notable fact about opioids is that it contains opium and sometimes morphine. The same chemical properties of opioids are found in the drug Heroin that costs half the price on the streets. Today in the United States, there is a Heroin epidemic, mostly concentrated in the Northeast and the Midwest. Most of the people who were on opioids found that the drugs they relied on to relieve their pain became too expensive so they turned to heroin as a cheaper solution. The U.S. government deemed this epidemic so severe that a special task force was created to deal with the ongoing problem which includes rehabilitation center for people seeking help. According to an October 2015 article in The Boston Globe, some people who are addicted to opioids are being treated with medical marijuana to wane people off their opioid cravings.

The push for the legalization of marijuana was bolstered by the Obama Administration, who took a hands off approach to pursuing minor marijuana cases by the Justice Department. States like Colorado and Washington quickly voted on measures to legalize marijuana use in their states. In 2016, there are now 28 states that have legalized the use of marijuana to be used for medicinal or recreational use. The state of Louisiana has also approved the uses of marijuana for medicinal use to be grown in certain designated venues.

The data that is now available, shows that the properties of CBD (cannabidiol) in marijuana has the medicinal properties to cure ailments like glaucoma, nausea, neuralgia, cramps, migraine, insomnia, asthma, convulsions, and depression. The CBD used in medicinal marijuana is for pain management and doesn’t have the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) properties that are known to cause hallucinations and euphoria, which most people associate marijuana with. To recap, medicinal marijuana only has the property of CBD that is used for pain management whereas recreational marijuana has both the properties of THC and CBD.

The Push

Most NFL players would like the league to approve the use of medicinal marijuana because they fear that they will become addicted to opioids and succumb to degenerative brain disease (known as CTE) like their predecessors. Research shows that CBD in medicinal marijuana may be able to help with CTE and for most players this is the only viable alternative.

The NFL is hesitating to approve medicinal marijuana, stating that the drug is considered ‘illegal’ by the federal government, even though most of the teams in the league play in states where the drug is legal to consume. The NFL’s official statement about this issue goes on to say, “top priority is the health and safety of our players” but that “medical experts have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach related to marijuana.”  In other words, the league is hiding behind the collective-bargaining agreement made with the player’s union in 2011.

The Studies

The research in the field of marijuana is just in its infancy but researchers like Ryan Vandrey at Johns Hopkins University would like to study the long term effects of CBD on active NFL players. Mr Vandrey said, “It may be beneficial for a number of these health conditions, but it may also be harmful. We don’t have a good enough of an understanding. There isn’t enough data for us to be able to predict for any one person, is it going to be more helpful than harmful?”  This is a classic Catch-22 scenario in that the players want to participate in these very studies that the NFL contractually will not allow.


The use of medicinal marijuana as an alternative to opioids seems like a healthier option rather than relying on painkillers that have been known for chronic addiction.  With countless research and growing social acceptance the days of marijuana being labeled as a ‘gateway drug’ is going the way of the dodo bird. New research has proven that, if used properly, marijuana can relieve chronic pain and reduce stress.

The NFL owes it to the players to research and study the benefit of medicinal marijuana. Most NFL players suffer from nagging pain throughout their life and are surely entitled to benefit from new pain management techniques. If the NFL invests in this groundbreaking research they could revolutionize the lives of their players and in turn the game itself.

Source: ‘Could marijuana compound CBD help NFL players with pain?’ report by Dana Jacobson for CBS News


Related Content: