Originally published September 11, 2014.
This year, the NFL embarks on its regular season with three interconnected scandals casting a gloom over the league’s future. Here’s the selected rap sheet:
- The league is dodging culpability in a lawsuit from former players with debilitating diseases caused by long-term brain injuries.
- A group of players is suing the NFL over their team’s doctors overprescribing highly addictive pain meds.
While they are separate disputes for now, these three issues threaten to culminate in a firestorm that will cost the league far more than just monetary damages. It could cut short football’s tenure as America’s biggest sport. As the brain injury crisis and the prescription drug crisis spur each other on, the NFL remains resistant to changing their policies, clinging to an unsustainable model that exploits players and tarnishes the sport’s public image.
However unlikely, the league could make a progressive change in their drug policy and possibly in the process cancel out the other two scandals as well. The NFL should not only allow medical marijuana, they should actively encourage their players to use it instead of prescription drugs.
The increase in brain trauma is unavoidable. Over time, competition has shaped football into a far more brutal sport. Bigger players and bigger hits equal wins and fan delight, so it’s no surprise that the sheer physical impact on players’ bodies trends progressively upward. The players are tougher on the outside, able to withstand more force than the average person, but their brains are just as soft and mushy as anyone else’s. Helmets are not sufficient protection from concussions.
The NFL’s response to this crisis? Downplaying the idea that it’s a crisis at all by claiming that concussions went down in the 2013 season. But after the 2014 season’s head-smashing first week, we see the injuries stacking up already. As the NFL attempts to minimize the problem, the public takes grave note. Fewer parents are letting their kids play football. At a time when even soccer is under scrutiny for concussions, the popularity of a full-contact sport like football is set for a steady decline.
“Guys feel like, 'If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.'”
The growing battle injuries of football are met with the league’s increased liberality in prescribing powerful pain medicines to players. Drugs like Toradol allow players to immediately ignore their pain and continue playing, unaware of the further damage they’re causing their bodies. In the long-term, Toradol ravages the gastrointestinal system, and its anticoagulant properties can complicate concussions. If you’re trying to get a player back on the field in the moment, Toradol will do the trick, but it’s an immensely shortsighted measure that feeds directly into the brain injury crisis. Beyond the basic inhumanity of pumping an athlete full of drugs before playing, it seems odd that the NFL and its clubs would be so reckless with their investments. Player longevity appears to be of absolutely no concern.
Aside from Toradol, teams rampantly dole out highly addictive opiate painkillers to players, leading to widespread addiction. Now, it’s blowing up in the league’s face. In May of 2014, the NFL’s choice of pain drugs led to a class action suit filed on behalf of 1,300 former players claiming long-term health damage, as well as an investigation by the FBI. Still, the NFL remains steadfast in its ways. In an email, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Complex, “We’ve utilized experts on substance abuse disorders and addiction and we ask them to make recommendations and to date they haven’t recommended any change.” That is unfortunate, considering that a simple change to the NFL’s substance policy could mitigate the fallout from the concussion crisis and the prescription drug crisis in one go.
The NFL should allow medical marijuana for players and begin prescribing it as a treatment for head injuries and an alternative to chemical pain drugs. There’s strong evidence of marijuana’s neuroprotective qualities, which could directly combat concussions, reducing the long-term risk of diseases stemming from brain injury, and thereby yielding fewer disputes raised by former players. Marijuana is also an effective pain reliever. Earlier this year, Steelers free safety Ryan Clark told ESPN that many players prefer marijuana for pain relief over prescription drugs. According to Clark, “Guys feel like, 'If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.'” Marijuana is not physically addictive. If every player were to switch from addictive opiate painkillers to cannabis, the NFL’s prescription drug woes would virtually disintegrate.
In itself, the act of altering their drug policy to treat marijuana as a medicine would solve a PR problem for the NFL. This year, the league revealed its outdated view of marijuana, and invited public ire, when they initially punished Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon’s marijuana infraction far more severely than Ravens running back Ray Rice’s highly publicized spousal abuse. The NFL responded by toughening their penalties for domestic abuse, but showed little propensity to shift on marijuana. Changing their stance on marijuana would put the NFL in line with the American public, which increasingly favors marijuana legalization.
Instead of struggling to preserve an utterly unsustainable sports culture, the NFL could start undoing some of the damage and actually prevent future crises of this nature. That’s not the route they are taking. Commissioner Roger Goodell has paid the issue some lip service, but there is little hope for real action. Renegotiations of the league’s drug testing policy have been grinding away since 2011, and while there may be an end in sight, it's probable to focus more on player HGH testing and doesn't look like a league-wide acceptance of marijuana is any closer to reality. According to Greg Aiello, “The NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades. The medical advisors to the program tell us that there is no need for medical marijuana to be prescribed to an NFL player.” By all estimation, the purveyors of football in America will forego the simple, humane solution right under their noses.
[UPDATE: slight relaxation of the penalties for marijuana use; no steps taken towards marijuana acceptance.]