The NFL seems to regularly be in the news these days, and not just for the plays on the field. In just the past year two major off-field concerns have grabbed national attention; the after-effects of concussions relating to on-field hits, and the rampant usage of prescription pain pills by teams to keep players on the field. The players have already won a $700 million dollar lawsuit against the legaue over the concussions, and may yet win litigation against the NFL for pain pills in the coming months. If this isn’t enough already, there are some players like Tank Johnson now saying that upwards of 80% of NFL players regularly use marijuana for pain management, again casting a negative light over the league. Are we now witnessing a “tipping point” relating to players health and lifestyle that might dramatically impact future NFL policies — especially marijuana?
Inconsistencies in sports around drugs
Drugs and sports are a white-hot issue right now, as there seems to be no real consensus around what is good or bad, needed or unnecessary, safe or potentially dangerous. Marijuana is currently banned, yet provides no athletic advantage to players who use (and is now legal in many states across the country). Pain pills are widely used and do appear to provide an athletic advantage, yet these pills are widely available and used by players without much problem from the league. Similarly, psychotropic drugs, including psychostimulants prescribed for ADHD, are in the same drug category as opiates and cocaine, yet the league has no problem with players on these drugs.
But back to marijuana for a moment — if it is true that upwards of 80% of players currently use the drug what does the future hold for the NFL, drug testing, and keeping players eligible to compete (assuming 80% would be suspended if proper testing occurred)? Furthermore, the issue of players using marijuana becomes more complex when you consider the following:
- Marijuana is now legal in many states, and the forecast based on national polling is that in the coming years it will be legal in nearly every state. If that holds true, does the NFL need to lighten up on their marijuana policies as a result?
- Many NFL players are claiming they use marijuana for pain management — a similar argument as to why they use prescription pain pills that are currently either overlooked or offered by teams with players being encouraged to use. Aside from the obvious hypocrisy here, does the view on marijuana change when it is framed around pain management instead of recreational use? Should this even matter?
- Assuming 8 out of every 10 players currently use marijuana, are the players holding all the cards here? In other words, the NFL relies on the players as “the product” that drives their billion-dollar annual business — if the players stick their nose up at current drug policies and testing, what then happens? We have already seen in the past that fans aren’t interested in replacement players, which essentially gives all the power to the current players (assuming they stick together on this) around how they choose to use marijuana. More simply, the players seem to have a lot of leverage here whether they realize it or not.
The national discussion around marijuana (aside from how it directly relates to the NFL) is an interesting one that includes many different angles, including views from policy makers, scientists, medical experts, and in the case of sports leagues labor unions. Drilling deeper, an increasing number of scientists and physicians are claiming marijuana does indeed provide help to those who suffer from chronic pain — is this enough to persuade the NFL to allow for the drug? Similarly, some states, like Colorado, allow for recreational use of marijuana — if more states go this way in the future, would the national norms established persuade the NFL to change its thinking — even if there are no medicinal advantages for users?
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