Feb 3, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (left) sits next to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (right) during the winning team press conference the day after Super Bowl XLVIII at Sheraton New York Times Square. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Why the NFL should seriously consider medicinal marijuana

In 2013, there were 210 concussions that occurred in the National Football League. A year prior, former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, 50, committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest rather than his head so his brain could be researched for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Researchers found the same disease in Duerson’s brain that’s been found in numerous deceased NFL players.

To backtrack, concussions are traumatic brain injuries. They happen when you topple down staircases and when you’re steamrolled on crossing routes, when your cranium contorts like silly putty. When they happen, your brain is never the same.

Few would assess former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher as himself in 2012 when he entered his home, shot his girlfriend and mother of his three-month-old daughter, jumped into his black Bentley and headed to Arrowhead Stadium, where he would place a .40-caliber handgun to his skull and pull the trigger. The effects of concussions stay with you a lifetime, and in the NFL, the protocol for treatment is, well, primitive.

Currently, the NFL asks concussed players to complete a variety of tasks in order to get back to the field. They are designed to take fifteen minutes to complete. In the second round of this year’s playoffs, Percy Harvin came back in less than ten. He would pay for this decision moments later. The current protocol for concussion treatment in the league is: if you sustain a concussion and are unable to pass the tests, you’re excused from participating in games or practice. That’s it.

Despite the league-imposed waiting game whose parameters are regularly violated, the NFL’s policies on marijuana are quite strident. Players are tested each season and, upon violating said policies, are ordinarily suspended or fined. When medicinal marijuana was legalized in 2012, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told USA Today “the NFL’s policy is collectively bargained and will continue to apply in the same manner it has for decades. Marijuana remains prohibited.”

Sanjay Gupta is a well-known neurosurgeon and CNN correspondent who was offered the position of Surgeon General of the United States when President Barack Obama was elected. In August, Gupta apologized to the American public for his part in the systemic misleading of medicinal marijuana’s viability over the past 70 years. It was the largest endorsement that the community could’ve received. Many changed their perspective on the issue alongside him.

This year’s Super Bowl pitted two states where recreational cannabis has been legalized. Innumerable social media accounts plastered “Stoner Bowl” across the web until even my father was in on the joke. However, only Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was willing to acknowledge its legitimacy when asked in a press conference prior to the game.

Despite the more than 1 million medicinal marijuana patients – as of December 2012 – when NFL head commissioner Roger Goodell was questioned, he responded, “We will follow medicine, and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that.” It was a stutter-step, a stale cookie-cutter response to an issue that will continue to be swept under the rug for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps it’s because we too commonly place athletes on pedestals while simultaneously chiseling at the marble. Maybe it’s a result of us persistently compartmentalizing all narcotics as drugs, removed of any measurable value. When the Kansas City Chiefs met the Indianapolis Colts last month, I can recall broadcasters Dan Hicks and Mike Mayock mentioning Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe’s well-documented history of substance abuse four times too many. We strap athletes to a sundial and expect them not to sweat.

For those still seeking rationale for the legality of cannabis consider last August’s issue of Cerebral Cortex, a scientific journal conducted by the Oxford University Press. The journal released a study showcasing marijuana’s ability to activate the body’s cannabinoid receptors, which “can help heal the brain after a traumatic injury, such as a concussion.”

The United States government even has a patent on marijuana as a neuroprotectant.

However, it was no surprise when the NFL announced the first grant awards in the league’s “Head Health Initiative – a $60 million partnership aimed at researching the brain,” medicinal cannabis researchers were not among the recipients.

There are still players who continue to smoke despite knowing full well the repercussions. I guess when you’re beaten to your knees by 300-pound men and have that process repeated for 60 minutes, only to do it again in practice the next day, it can be difficult to keep yourself from crumbling. When your entire offseason is grounded upon mentally and physically preparing yourself for what the regular season will do to you, it comes with a price.

In the aftermath of New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie endorsing medicinal marijuana for the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark acknowledged that some of his teammates simply couldn’t hold up without it. Per CBS Sports, Clark professed:

I know guys on my team who smoke. A lot of it is stress relief. A lot of it is pain and medication. 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.’ Guys look at this as a more natural way to heal themselves, to stress relieve and also to medicate themselves for pain.  

Not everyone in the NFL desires to use marijuana, nor should they. But it is pretty alarming to consider that a medication used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, arthritis, depression, anxiety, hepatitis, morning sickness, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and the effects of chemotherapy (to name a few) is entirely criminalized for NFL players, some of which who live in states that legally allow its use.

I’m not expecting Roger Goodell to act hastily on the issue. In fact, I don’t expect the NFL to break their cross-armed stance on the topic for quite some time. But let’s not act like there’s not proof in the benefits of marijuana, benefits that 40% of the United States have already realized, accepted, and changed legislation regarding. This decision will likely boil down to players renegotiating the approved 10-year collective bargaining agreement that isn’t set to expire until 2021, leaving little room for change in the short term.

If the lives of Mike Webster, Terry Long, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Junior Seau, and Jovan Belcher could’ve been saved, shouldn’t our next question be how? Medicinal marijuana may not fix the NFL’s concussion problem, but it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt it.

Tags: Antonio Cromartie Chicago Bears Dwayne Bowe Indianapolis Colts Jovan Belcher Kansas City Chiefs Medicinal Marijuana New York Jets NFL Percy Harvin Pete Carroll Roger Goodell Ryan Clark Seatlle Seahawks

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