A week after legal marijuana became a reality in Colorado, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hinted that his league’s stance on medical marijuana could be evolving. Marijuana is a banned substance in the NFL — even in Colorado and Washington, which legalized marijuana last year — but at the very least, Goodell left the door open to the possibility that the NFL’s views on marijuana could be changing alongside the views of the public.
“I don’t know what’s going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries,” Goodell said at an appearance in New York City. “But we will continue to support the evolution of medicine.”
Though marijuana use among athletes is usually still considered a subject of scandal, medicinal marijuana is already legal in 20 states and Washington D.C. Medical research and anecdotal commentary show that it could have major benefits for athletes too, helping them deal with both injuries and chronic pain, as Sports On Earth’s Patrick Hruby has explained:
[A] 1999 Institute of Medicine study on medical marijuana — a report funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, hardly a bunch of longhaired hippies — found that marijuana has pain-alleviating properties. Two years ago, the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology published a review of 18 randomized controlled trials of cannabis; in 15 of the trials, the drug proved “safe and modestly effective” for treating neuropathic pain, with “no serious adverse effects” and “preliminary evidence of efficacy in fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis.” Oh, and patients mostly slept better, too — which just happens to be a crucial component of athletic recovery from injury and physical strain.
It’s no secret that chronic pain from soreness, strains, and other injuries are a regular part of life in the league. But NFL-approved marijuana could also help players deal with another major injury that is lighting up the NFL’s radar: concussions and head injuries. Though far from conclusive, early studies have suggested that marijuana may be able to help speed recovery from head injuries like concussions, as author and journalist Clint Werner explained in his book about the medicinal effects of marijuana:
“Severe head injuries automatically trigger the production of an excessive amount of neurotransmitters called glutamates. When there are too many of these chemicals in the brain, they can initiate a chain reaction of cell degradation and impairment. The cannabinoids, which we find in marijuana, work as effective antioxidants, potentially neutralizing the glutamate activity and stopping the cascade of neuronal damage that can follow.”
Of course, granting NFL players a license to toke would hardly solve the NFL’s concussion issue. What it could do, though, is help reduce players’ reliance on prescription painkillers, alcohol, and other substances as they cope with the pain of everyday life in professional football. Over-reliance on those substances is already a concern. A 2011 study from the Washington University School of Medicine surveyed 644 retired players and found that 52 percent consumed prescription painkillers while active, as Hruby writes. 71 percent among them admitted to misusing the drugs. Marijuana may be addictive too, but again, early studies have shown that it is less addictive and causes fewer deaths than prescription painkillers.
Goodell’s statement is far from an endorsement of medical marijuana, but it shows that the NFL is paying attention to the shifting national mood on marijuana and that it is at least considering a change that could make it easier for players to deal with the injuries and pains that are inherent to professional football. But if the NFL is waiting on definitive science, legal marijuana may not happen any time soon, considering that scientists and drug policy analysts have criticized the federal government for standing in the way of legitimate research into the effects — and potential benefits — of the plant.