The following is an excerpt from the report “Mile High Potential: NFL Veterans Tackle America’s Opioid Crisis,” written by Richard A. Kimball Jr. and David W. Johnson
Professional football has long since surpassed baseball as America’s most popular sport. The NFL’s Super Bowl is a national party. Super Bowls represent 19 of America’s 20 most-watched TV broadcasts.
NFL football is high-octane competition characterized by strategy, grace, speed, willpower and brutal violence. To perform at peak levels, pro athletes must study and practice intensely while building and maintaining their finely-tuned bodies.
To stay on the field, most players also manage chronic pain by relying on opioid-based painkillers, antiinflammatories and other drugs prescribed by team physicians. Going further, many players risk fines and suspensions by consuming banned drugs to enhance performance and/or manage pain. These including Adderall, anabolic steroids and marijuana.
The NFL strictly monitors and punishes the use of banned drugs. Repeat offenders receive incrementally severe suspensions. Getting caught derails careers.
Penalizing the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) makes sense. It literally levels the playing field. By contrast, the NFL penalizes marijuana use by players for legal and political reasons, not to maintain competitive balance.
The NFL’s anti-marijuana stances has become problematic. Former players argue that marijuana helped them avoid prescription opioids by managing their chronic pain, inflammation and neurological disorders.
The NFL’s over-reliance on opioid painkillers and its prohibition against medical marijuana mirrors mainstream medical opinion. American society is moving past the medical establishment and the NFL. It’s time for more enlightened thinking.
Playing On Drugs
Eugene Monroe was a gifted offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens. Monroe trained intensely, ate well and avoided drugs. His hard work paid off. Monroe was the 8th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
Professional football is a physically-demanding, injury-prone occupation. Team doctors prescribed Monroe opioids (OxyContin and Vicodin), anti-inflammatories (Toradol and Celebrex), sleep aids (Ambien) and other drugs to treat his pain and prime him for competition.
“I was given pills before practice and training, and before, during, and after games. It was beginning to affect my body, my gastrointestinal system and my personality,” Monroe said.
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As the wear-and-tear accumulated, Monroe was in constant pain and took multiple drugs to avoid losing playing time, Monroe blacked-out driving home from a game as opioids kicked in. He saw former players suffer and sometimes die from opioid addiction. He wanted opioids out of his life. Monroe began experimenting quietly with cannabis as a pain relief substitute. Its healing properties amazed him.
In a March 9, 2016 CNN interview, Monroe became the first active player to publicly question the NFL’s reliance on prescription opioids and its anti-cannabis policy. He challenged the NFL to study the efficacy of medical marijuana. Monroe’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, released him last June and he subsequently retired.
Monroe has since become an outspoken advocate for radical changes to the NFL’s policies on marijuana use. He personally funds medical marijuana research and invests in early-stage medical marijuana companies. He still trains intensely but relies on medical marijuana to manage his pain and joint inflammation. “Now, I don’t take any pharmaceuticals at all,” he says.
Like Monroe, other former NFL players are expressing their concerns regarding prescription opioids and their positive experiences with medical marijuana. Monroe’s Jacksonville teammate, Eben Britton, received heavy doses of opioids from team physicians to treat his injuries and chronic pain.
Britton believes in holistic medicine and has a strong aversion to pharmaceuticals.
“I didn’t like the side-effects of opioids. They made me feel crazy and irritable. They drove up my heart rate and made it difficult for me to sleep. So, I gravitated to cannabis. It relieved my physical pain and stress and helped me sleep and even lessened the anxiety of being on injured reserve and away from the team,” Britton said.
As a player, the stigma and consequences of getting caught made Britton anxious. In retirement, he trumpets the benefits of medicinal marijuana.
“I love the game and I recognize that pain is part of it. If the NFL is concerned about players getting high [on marijuana], the reality is they’re already high on opioids. The league has the opportunity to be innovators in sports medicine and to have a positive impact on players’ health by looking more closely at medical marijuana.”
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Fortunately, medical marijuana has widespread public support. Like other consensus social movements (i.e. gay marriage) that overcame entrenched political beliefs, the body politic will overwhelm institutional interests opposing medical marijuana. As Bob Dylan sang, “It doesn’t take a weathervane to see which way the wind blows.”
This bring us back to the NFL. After fighting the medical evidence that concussions caused severe brain damage, the League pivoted and now leads efforts to diagnose, treat and prevent concussions. Brave players taking a stand catalyzed this change and the country is better for it.
The NFL is waiting for the medical establishment to conduct medical marijuana research and approve its use. It’s time for the NFL to play offense. Rather than sit on the sidelines, the league could fund research and promote the appropriate use of medical marijuana. This would be a smart political and policy strategy. It would also address player health concerns, appeal to a younger demographic and place the league on the right side of history.
Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. An analysis by the Marijuana Policy Group found the marijuana industry created over 18,000 new jobs in Colorado and contributed $2.4 billion to the state’s economy.
Ironically, the naming rights for the NFL’s Denver Broncos “Mile High” Stadium are up for bid. Among the interested parties are two of Colorado’s largest marijuana distributors.20 This is harmonic convergence of the highest order. Somewhere in America, Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton and other NFL veterans are smiling.
David Johnson is the CEO of 4sight Health, a boutique healthcare advisory firm. Rick Kimball is a Partner of The Costera Group, an investment company. Having spent 30 years at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Millennium Technology Ventures.