Is Roger Goodell the Jeff Sessions of the National Football League? Opponents of his stance on cannabis might wonder about it, as many believe the marijuana facts (sorry, "facts") he’s been trotting out lately read like soundbites of a bygone era — similar to the "facts" the U.S. Attorney General frequently uses.
The NFL’s painkiller overreliance
It’s no shocker that many NFL and former-NFL players have sustained life-altering injuries playing the sport they love. While the rewards of a lengthy, injury-free career can be great, few players actually achieve that reality. Most have an experience quite the opposite.
As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, between 2008 and 2016 the average career of an NFL player (across all positions) decreased substantially, from 4.99 years to 2.66 years. Wide receivers now have the shortest careers of all, averaging less than 2 years and 3 months. A few players, like former New York Jet D'Brickashaw Ferguson, have simply walked away from the game before being subjected to serious injury.
Not all are as fortunate as Ferguson, however. Many are forced out of the sport by career-ending injuries or, as is becoming more frequent, the accumulation of head trauma in the form of concussions.
Whatever the debility, NFL and former-NFL players rack up on painkiller prescriptions. If claims in a current lawsuit — filed by some 1,800 former players against the league — are accurate, the NFL pushes massive amounts of painkillers on injured stars who are not “informed of the long-term health effects of taking controlled substances and prescription medications in the amounts given to them.”
Just how many painkillers does the NFL distribute? According to a CNN report, “in calendar year 2012, on average...each team was prescribed 5,777 doses of anti-inflammatories and 2,270 doses of narcotics. Considering that each team has 53 players, that could amount to about 150 doses of drugs per player each year.”
That’s an astonishing amount. And what’s the benefit? According to a 2014 opioid study, not much. Or as the Washington Post summarized, “there's little evidence of benefit for treating chronic pain with opioids, but a there is a real risk of harm.” You needn't be well-versed in marijuana facts to see that isn't a desired result.
And marijuana is bad?
Yet no matter the pleadings made by numerous NFL voices — including the likes of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — league bigwigs are sticking to the “marijuana is bad for you” line. Even when new research (much discussed in this Washington Post piece) is being published highlighting “substantial evidence that cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain in adults.”
Don’t tell that to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, though. On ESPN in April, Goodell justified his, and the league’s, take on cannabis by saying it’s addictive and that he “want(s) to make sure that the negative consequences aren’t something...we’ll be held accountable for some years down the road.”
It’s hard to read the “held accountable” part there and not see that as code for “be sued.”
In a litigious society, it makes sense that liabilities are a chief concern. That said, opioids deliver well-demonstrated negative consequences. Much worse, it is believed at this point, than any cannabis side effects.
This single datapoint comparison is telling enough, related to marijuana facts:
0 — the number of recorded cannabis overdose fatalities ever
20,101 — the number of prescription painkiller deaths in one year (2015)
Goodell also noted that “smoking” marijuana can’t be healthy, though he failed to mention the vast array of cannabis-infused products players could use in substitution for inhaling flower smoke.
Will the NFL ever budge on marijuana use?
The jury is still deliberating the scientific benefit/risk ratio (What are the chances for addiction? What are the impacts on the brain? How exactly will this help players?) of marijuana used as a substitute for traditional pain medications. Many more hard marijuana facts are needed. But advocates of its use are growing less patient with the NFL’s approach.
The day after Goodell’s ESPN interview, retired NBA all star, Cliff Robinson remarked that “cannabis can help players that are battling brain injuries, chronic pain, and other conditions. But rather than work on a policy that is based on science and compassion for players, the Commissioner appears to want to continue to enforce a failed policy, and in the process, push players towards more harmful substances like opioid painkillers.”
Time will tell how this argument shakes out — most likely by the time the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement is redrafted after the 2020 football season.