The National Football League is back in action this weekend—if you count preseason games as "action"—after taking a tiny step toward maybe, possibly, someday letting players use marijuana to treat pain.
NFL owners agreed to work together with the NFL Players Association on a study to determine the effectiveness of marijuana as a medical treatment. Yes, there have already been numerous studies on the medical value of marijuana—29 states have legalized the drug for that reason—but this seemingly small step is a pretty big shift for the league, which has always maintained a strict prohibitionist stance on pot.
"Certainly the research about marijuana and really more particularly cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to the treatment of both acute and chronic pain, that is an area of research that we need a lot more information on and we need to further develop," Allen Sills, a Vanderbilt University neurosurgeon hired earlier this year to be the NFL's chief medical officer, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Sills said examining the feasibility of players using marijuana to manage the pain that comes from repeated full-speed collisions with other muscle-bound athletes was "really important" to players' long term health.
While the NFL has never allowed players to use marijuana for any reason—the players' union is also reportedly seeking reduced punishments for recreational use as well—there is a well-documented history of teams handing out pharmaceutical pain-killers by the handful. The NFL currently is fighting a lawsuit from several former players who allege that official team doctors literally handed out piles of opioids and other painkillers—ignoring federal laws for prescription drugs and disregarding medical guidance—before, during, and after games.
"The medicine being pumped into these guys is just killing people," former player Nate Jackson told Rolling Stone last year, as part of an excellent piece on the league's nonsensical marijuana rules and how they've led to an over-reliance on opioids.
The NFL's slowly changing stance on the issue comes a few months after Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' owner and possibly the most powerful billionaire in the NFL's inner circle of powerful billionaires, floated the idea of loosening the ban on marijuana.
Much as it pains me to admit it, Jones is absolutely right. The NFL's anti-marijuana stance simply doesn't make sense as more state governments adopt more liberal views toward medical and recreational weed. A player on the Seattle Seahawks or Denver Broncos (or any of the California-based teams in the league) can buy and use marijuana legally in the state where he spends most of his time during the season, but could face a suspension and a fine if he's caught with it in his system.
Twenty of the 32 NFL teams play in states where medical marijuana is legal. This, too, mirrors the society-wide debate over the relationship between legal recreational weed and employment contracts that prohibit the use of marijuana. The league, and individual teams, are within their rights to require certain behavior from their players as a condition of employment, of course, but given the NFL's troubled history with punishing more serious offenses like, say, serial sexual assaults or domestic violence by star players, enforcing an absolute prohibition against marijuana use seems like it should be a lesser priority.
Sills seems to recognize the NFL is both influenced by the changing views on marijuana in society, and in a position to reinforce that shift.
"These really aren't just football issues," Sills told the Post. "These are society issues, right? We know right now that as a society that the treatment of both acute and chronic pain is a huge public health problem.
"But I think that we in professional sports are in a unique position to help inform the public and to do research and really advance our state of understanding about this issue," he added.