Finding a Place for Cannabis in the National Football League

“When you’ve got two human beings hitting each other, there’s no such thing as a hammer and a nail. They’re both hammers. Both people are going to incur some sort of injury,” said former NFL great, Chicago Bears safety Doug Plank.

One half of the Bears’ “Hit Men,” Plank is no stranger to collisions or playing with pain. “Pain is such a factor in the National Football League. When I was there, physicians would drain your joints. They would actually take inflammation out of your shoulders and knees. That’s why I think I’ve got four replaced joints right now — titanium.”

Playing Through the Pain

Sixty-nine-year-old Plank walked the floor of MJBizCon 2022 in Las Vegas to learn more about the industry. He wanted to know how it can help former and current players in the NFL recover, deal with pain, and live a better quality of life when their playing days are behind them.

Plank recalled how things were when he played: “Thursday or Friday, getting ready to play a game on Sunday, and you couldn’t run because of the pain. Back in the seventies, what would happen between Thursday or Friday and Sunday is that the typical player in the NFL would get injections into his body to make him feel like he was brand new. He could do anything. You know, all the pain was gone. The flexibility was there like you never had it before.”

In any era of the NFL, injury is a part of a player’s daily reality. In a 2021 report by Science Direct, over the course of the study period (four NFL seasons), 3,025 injuries were reported. Of the 3,025 injuries reported, 582 (19%) occurred during weeks 1-4 of the 2020-2021 regular season.

Finding the necessary pain-management solution that aligns with the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players has been controversial for decades.

Moving the Goalposts

The NFL has had a firm stance on the use of cannabis as a part of its banned substance list. So, players turned to painkillers and opioids to keep them game-ready and pain-free. Plank recalls taking so many painkillers after breaking his ribs, he was completely numb, putting himself in an even more dangerous situation. 

“That particular game I didn’t really feel anything from my neck to my waist. I could look and see it, but I couldn’t feel it. I could touch it without any feeling.”  He continued, “I’m not trying to act like I’m some kind of strong, fantastic player. There were a lot of players that suffered the same injuries, and we’re expected to go out and play with pain. You know, that was one of the things that you were really expected to do.”

As legalization grows throughout the United States, the NFL is taking a closer look at cannabis use for players.

During the 2021 offseason, the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed on changes to the league’s marijuana policy. Players now are only required to test for marijuana once per year at the start of training camp. Players that fail the test are subject to a fine, but not the lengthy suspension they faced in the past. Plank believes this kind of evolved thinking is a long time coming.

“I’m all for anything that can help the present-day athlete perform and perform better, but also do it under a safe and equitable background and plan. This is a great first step.”

Expanding the Research

Furthermore, in Feb. 2022, the National Football League announced the award of $1 million in research funding to two teams of medical researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Regina. The studies will investigate the effects of cannabinoids on pain management and neuroprotection from concussion in elite football players, respectively.

Plank isn’t alone in thinking it’s about time for these possible rule changes. Recently another Chicago Bears great, Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon, shared how cannabis has been more than a Band-Aid solution, but a life-changing option. After retiring from 15 seasons in the NFL, McMahon suffered severe chronic pain. To deal, he became attached to pills, claiming at one point he would take 100 Percocet pills a month.

“There are so many uses for this plant,” McMahon said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are dying from [painkillers], and there’s not one case of people dying from the hemp plant.” 

He added, “God got us all off of these [pain] pills we were taking for years. [Cannabis] is a much, much better thing for us. Everybody has a cannabinoid system in their bodies, and we’re supposed to be using this plant.”

Dr. Allen Sills, NFL chief medical officer, feels it’s crucial to better understand the current options available for pain management. “As with the league’s broader approach to health and safety, we want to ensure that our players are receiving care that reflects the most up-to-date medical consensus.” 

He continued, “While the burden of proof is high for NFL players who want to understand the impact of any medical decision on their performance, we are grateful that we have the opportunity to fund these scientifically-sound studies on the use of cannabinoids that may lead to the discovery of data-based evidence that could impact the pain management of our players.”

Finding Alternatives

“I think the results have proven that it could be an effective treatment in certain situations,” Plank said. For current and future players, removing cannabis from the banned substance list could open up a healthy alternative to painkillers. It could help NFL alumni live a more pain-free life after their careers are over.

The new generation of NFL players has been raised in a world where cannabis is not taboo but a part of the global conversation. For alumni like Plank (who has never actually tried any kind of cannabis), McMahon, and many others, education, erasing the stigma of “the drug,” and understanding the health benefits it can have on everything from chronic pain to PTSD is an important next step.

This article first appeared in Volume 4 Issue 4 of Cannabis & Tech Today. Read the full issue here.

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