Recently, Jeff Miller, the NFL's vice president for player health and safety, and league-aligned neurosurgeon Russell Lonser spoke with a group of marijuana researchers funded by Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe. Monroe has contributed $80,000 to the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins to advance the studies of medical marijuana use for NFL players.
"[The NFL reps] are interested in learning more about the potential for cannabinoids to help current and former players, as is evidenced by them taking the call, and also expressed a desire to learn more," Marcel Bonn-Miller, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania school of medicine, told the Washington Post. "They are definitely showing genuine curiosity, and they are definitely not throwing up roadblocks."
If this is the case, it's a major reversal for a league that has been far behind the exploration of medical marijuana as a painkiller and useful agent in the possible reversal of the effects of head trauma. To date, the NFL has hidden its head in the sand with unique determination regarding the subject -- an interesting position for a league that has been far too careless with other types of painkillers for decades.
Toradol was approved by the FDA in 1999. It's a highly potent, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that became popular with NFL players early in the new millennium -- so popular that in 2003, then-Tennessee Titans receiver Drew Bennett testified openly to ESPN as to its positive effects as he was recovering from a hamstring injury.
"I couldn't come close to opening up and running full speed," Bennett said in 2011. "I took a Toradol shot, and 15 minutes later I felt no pain." Bennett said that he received a weekly injection of Toradol for the rest of his career, and he now suffers from chronic knee injuries.
That's the first and most obvious problem with pharmaceutical painkillers. They mask pain so completely that they allow athletes to drive through the injuries, degenerative and otherwise, that serve as the body's warnings to slow down. The more you push past those limits, the more you will suffer down the road. This we know, and this we know very specifically when it comes to NFL players.
The NFL talks of more vigilant safeguards, but the league is still an opiate-based league when it comes to pain management. Toradol, Vicodin, OxyContin and other opioids have been commonly used in the NFL to treat pain, with little thought to what will become of the men who take them once their careers are over.
The second obvious problem with painkillers is their generally horrifying side effects. In 2013, then-Seahawks fullback and current NFL Network analyst Michael Robinson told me of an instance in which he was prescribed the anti-inflammatory medication Indocin. Robinson took the medication while he was dehydrated, and because of what he called a "perfect storm" of a situation, his liver and kidneys shut down. He went from 240 to 215 pounds in a two-week stretch in which he spent most of his time in the University of Washington medical center. Doctors there pumped him with fluids and discharged him when he shouldn't have been discharged, and by the time his symptoms were diagnosed, Robinson was essentially done as a football player.
In 2014, over 600 former players sued the NFL for what they claimed to be the league's mismanagement of opioid painkillers. Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu is suing his old team, claiming that team doctors knew he had a protein leak in his kidneys, that use of painkillers would hasten his kidney issues and that he was never told what the physicians knew. Kemoeatu's older brother Ma'ake, a defensive tackle for multiple teams between 2002 and 2012, retired from the game to give his brother a kidney in a transplant. Jim McMahon, who was part of the larger suit, claimed that he once had a broken neck and his trainers never told him about it. The "cure" was simply to fill him full of painkillers (cortisone was the preferred substance back in McMahon's day) and get him back out on the field.
Kidney failure is a common story among former players who were given copious amounts of painkillers, well beyond the recommended doses. Roy Green, who played receiver from 1979-92, and Jeremy Newberry, who played offensive tackle from 1999-2008, have each suffered renal failure, and they each claimed painkiller mismanagement to be the culprit. The larger lawsuit was eventually dismissed in U.S. District Court, where Judge William Alsup said that arbitration guidelines in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement pre-empted the players' right to move forward with a class-action lawsuit.
"In such a rough-and-tumble sport as professional football, player injuries loom as a serious and inevitable evil. Proper care of these injuries is likewise a paramount need," Alsup wrote in his ruling. "The main point of this order is that the league has addressed these serious concerns in a serious way -- by imposing duties on the clubs via collective bargaining and placing a long line of health-and-safety duties on the team owners themselves."
It is into this environment that the marijuana discussion has expanded, and the extent to which the league has opposed pot is truly mind-boggling in comparison.
Former NFL players like McMahon and Kyle Turley have spoken openly about their own struggles with painkillers during and after their NFL careers, and they're equally candid about how medical marijuana has helped them out of some fairly serious tailspins. Monroe was the first currently active player willing to speak out about the NFL's blindness to the potential benefits of cannabis, and he's obviously raised a great deal of awareness (or put forth a great deal of political pressure, depending on your level of cynicism) if the NFL is actually willing to deign to listen to "the science" in a more enlightened fashion.
"I haven't had a conversation with any owners on this, but it goes beyond the owners' views on marijuana or anybody's viewpoints on marijuana," Monroe told me earlier this year. "Because we know it's a safer alternative to what's being done right now."
Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan has added his voice to the cause.
"I think for the NFL to say that cannabis does not benefit the long-term health of its players without actually having gone and done the research, I don't think that's an accurate statement," Morgan recently told Yahoo! News. "I feel like the NFL has a responsibility to look into it, to delegate time and money to research this for its players…Given how much influence that the NFL has on society, I think it would help the greater good."
It's not that the NFL has said there's no medical benefit to the use of marijuana. It's more that the league has held fast on a nebulous position without any specifics.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has blocked the advancement of medical marijuana in the league, primarily through his own insistence that there's nothing to the drug's specific advantages.
In 2014, when asked about it, Goodell said, "I'm not a medical expert. We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine, and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that. Our medical experts are not saying that right now."
Two years later, at Goodell's Super Bowl 50 press conference, I asked him if the league had given more thought to medical marijuana and its potential place in the NFL.
"I don't distinguish between the medical marijuana and marijuana issue," he said. "Our medical professionals look at that. That is exactly what we talked to them about. I would assume that it would be used in a medical circumstance or if it is even in recreational, our medical professionals look at it in both ways and determine whether they think it is in the best interest to do that. Yes, I agree there has been changes, but not significant enough changes that our medical personnel have changed their view. Until they do, then I don't expect that we will change our view."
Hopefully, these aren't the same medical professionals who have obfuscated the dangers of painkillers, and concussions, over the years.
Why don't more current players speak on the subject? Most likely because they're afraid of the potential repercussions. One wonders what role Monroe's advocacy had in his release from the Ravens on June 15. Yes, Monroe missed 15 games in the last two seasons with various injuries, and yes, the Ravens selected Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley in the first round of the 2016 draft, so head coach John Harbaugh could be believed when he said later last week that cutting Monroe was "100 percent football circumstances."
And yet, this is the same head coach who, months ago, insisted that Monroe did not speak for the organization. One also wonders why the Ravens were compelled to include Monroe's advocacy in the official website statement announcing his release. "The Ravens did not rally behind the cause," BaltimoreRavens.com staff writer Ryan Mink observed.
Marijuana use is currently a violation of the league's policy on substances of abuse, which means that even casual pot use can land a player on the suspended list pretty quickly. According to league protocol in the revised 2014 policy, a first test for marijuana does not result in a suspension, but a second positive test can result in a two-game fine. From there, additional positive tests result in a four-game fine, then a four-game suspension and then a 10-game suspension. In 2014, the NFL also changed the threshold of marijuana use for a positive test from 15 to 35 nanograms per milliliter of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana).
Still, current NFL suspensions for marijuana seem a bit excessive in a country where it's legal in more and more states (with certain restrictions), and the use of the drug is fairly common among the league's players. One well-known player recently told me that anywhere from 40-50 percent of NFL players use the drug in some way, which aligns with other speculations. The specific cause of suspensions due to a violation of the league's substance abuse policy is supposed to remain confidential, but Jets star defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson missed the first four games of the 2015 season for violations of the policy, and two AFC North star receivers -- Josh Gordon of the Browns and Martavis Bryant of the Steelers -- are trying to get out and stay out of the NFL's doghouse following prolonged suspensions involving marijuana use. And it's still unclear just how much Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil saw his stock drop in the 2016 draft when a video showing him smoking pot with a gas mask was released on Day 1 of the draft.
Beyond the potential disciplinary issues, there's some fairly compelling evidence that marijuana can help those in pain without the side effects common to painkillers. In 2010, Dr. Mark Ware, an assistant professor of anesthesia and family medicine at McGill University in Montreal, conducted a clinical trial in which cannabis and placebos were used to outline pain management possibilities. Ware said that his study proved the analgesic and medical value of cannabis as a pain-management tool.
And for a sport reeling from (and constantly trying to deny) the long-term impacts of head trauma, the possibilities of marijuana as a potential agent to re-start damaged brain cells -- quite against the general narrative -- would seem to be encouraging. Professor Yosef Sarne of Tel Aviv University's Adelson Center published research in 2013 indicating that even extremely low doses of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol]-around 1,000 to 10,000 times less than that in a conventional marijuana cigarette -administered over a wide window of one to seven days before or one to three days after injury can jumpstart biochemical processes which protect brain cells and preserve cognitive function over time."
Other studies have indicated a potential link between THC and a lower death rate following serious head trauma. And the United States government has classified cannabidiol (CBD), a Cannabis compound, as a neuroprotectant.
"There's been some extraordinarily compelling, preclinical work that's demonstrated that CBD is incredibly effective at helping to limit the extent of brain injury, which is really very intriguing and promising," Staci Gruber told Yahoo! News. Gruber is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and the director of McLean Hospital's MIND program.
Daniel Clauw, a University of Michigan professor involved in studying the comparative effects of cannabis and painkillers, told the Washington Post this:
"In my mind, there's no comparison if we just started from scratch in the year 2016 and looked newly at which class of drugs worked better to treat pain and side-effect profile up to and including death, in the case of opioids. You put the two next to each other, and there really is no debate which is more effective to treat pain. You would go the cannabinoid route instead of the opiate route."
It's past time for the NFL to stop looking at pot as some sort of medicinal boogeyman. The NFL has quite enough of those already.