In early June, the NFL’s pain management committee announced a $1 million grant to fund cannabinoid and CBD for pain research. The announcement shows the NFL’s evolution in thinking about cannabis.
Until last year, the league, which isn’t known for its progressive views, suspended players who tested positive for THC. The NFL ratified a labor agreement last March that included more relaxed rules concerning marijuana use. Testing is now limited to the first two weeks of training camp, and the threshold to trigger a failed test grew four times. Instead of suspension, the NFL now fines players depending on the amount and the degree of failed tests.
A few factors contributed to the shift. The cultural acceptance of marijuana in many states where franchises exist nudged the league along. Plus, before loosening standards, superstars sat the bench due to suspension. (Indefinitely suspended players have the opportunity to petition to be reinstated.) And like the rest of the world left rattled after the opioid crisis, many athletes are interested in alternatives to traditional and addictive painkillers.
Footballers endure constant wear and tear. It is common for the NFL to administer painkillers to athletes. In 2017, over 1,500 players filed a lawsuit against the league for over-administering drugs like Toradol, an anti-inflammatory. They alleged the league handed out drugs without disclosing potential side effects.
After years of litigation, the courts dismissed most cases. Players could not prove a connection between their ailments and painkillers. Still, the NFL has struggled to regain trust for athlete welfare after the concussion scandal. According to a New York Times article, a Washington University study revealed 7 percent of retired players, 1,500 men, said they misused painkillers, and 71 percent said they misused drugs during their careers.
Until recently, cannabis was taboo despite the internal knowledge that many athletes used marijuana. Now all-stars like Rob Gronkowski are open supporters of marijuana and CBD. Former Bronco running back Terrell Davis recently announced his new CBD business, DEFY, which makes THC-free energy drinks. According to an Insider article, Davis first tried CBD post-workout in 2017.
“When I left the game, physically, I was struggling, constant pain, inflammation. I was taking quite a few pain pills, I was taking daily anti-inflammatories, so I was just kind of looking for something better, a better alternative,” Davis said. “It worked on me almost immediately. I was really impressed with what I was seeing.”
According to an article on the NFL’s site, the co-chair of the pain management committee, Dr. Devin Hill, said that the interest in cannabis far exceeds the available research, and there is a need for better science.
Still, progressive changes around cannabis are a trend in pro sports. Major League Baseball removed marijuana from its list of banned substances. The NHL still tests but does not punish hockey players for positive results. NBA players are subject to 4 random tests throughout the season. Players must enter a program after failing the first test and are fined $25,000 after failing the second test.
Four or five research groups will receive the grant money by late November. Approval of CBD as a legitimate pain management treatment in the NFL and professional sports as a whole would help validate cannabidiol as plant-based medicine, with the potential to change how we treat pain on a national scale.