LOS ANGELES — VIRTUALLY every single player in the N.F.L. has a certifiable need for medical marijuana.
The game we celebrate creates a life of daily pain for those who play it. Some players choose marijuana to manage this pain, which allows them to perform at a high level without sacrificing their bodies or their minds.
I medicated with marijuana for most of my career as a tight end from 2003 through 2008. And I needed the medication. I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma, etc. Most players have similar medical charts. And every one of them needs the medicine.
Standard pain management in the N.F.L. is pain pills and pregame injections. But not all players favor the pill and needle approach. In my experience, many prefer marijuana. The attitude toward weed in the locker room mirrors the attitude in America at large. It’s not a big deal. Players have been familiar with it since adolescence, and those who use it do so to offset the brutality of the game. The fact that they made it to the N.F.L. at all means that their marijuana use is under control.
Had marijuana become a problem for me, it would have been reflected in my job performance, and I would have been cut. I took my job seriously and would not have allowed that to happen. The point is, marijuana and excellence on the playing field are not mutually exclusive.
A good example is Josh Gordon, the Cleveland Browns wide receiver who led the league last year with 1,646 receiving yards, despite missing two games for testing positive for codeine (for a strep throat, he said). He was suspended again late last month for the entire season after testing positive for marijuana. (At least five others were also suspended last year and this year for marijuana, according to the magazine Mother Jones.)
Most players are tested once a year under the N.F.L.’s substance abuse policy, between April 20 and Aug. 9. But players who test positive for a banned drug are placed in the league’s substance abuse program, where the testing is more frequent. It is in this probationary program that players tend to falter.
Gordon had marijuana in his system. He broke the rules. I understand that. But this is a rule that absurdly equates marijuana with opiates, opioids and PCP. The N.F.L.’s threshold for disciplinary action for marijuana is 10 times higher than the one used by the International Olympic Committee.
Nearly 17,000 Americans overdosed and died from prescription painkillers in 2011, according to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These are the same pills I was handed in full bottles after an injury. The same pills that are ravaging our cities. The same ones that are creating a population of apathetic adults, pill-popping their way through the day and dead behind the eyes. The same ones that are leading high schoolers to heroin because the pills no longer get them high and are too expensive. Yeah, those.
And there’s Josh Gordon, one of the planet’s most successful athletes. He is fit enough to run dozens of offensive plays a game and torch world-class athletes in the process. He memorizes complicated playbooks every week, learns sign language, remembers the coded language the quarterback uses when switching a play at the last second and adheres to militaristic itineraries of life in the N.F.L. He seems like a man in full control of his faculties.
In my playing days, the marijuana smokers struck me as sharper, more thoughtful and more likely to challenge authority than the nonsmokers. It makes me wonder if we weren’t that way because marijuana allowed us to avoid the heavy daze of pain pills. It gave us clarity. It kept us sane.
The social tide is turning regarding marijuana. As of July, 35 states and the District of Columbia permit some form of medical marijuana, and 18 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized it.
Professional football is a violent trade that could use some forward thinking. The N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association, which agreed to the league’s substance abuse policy in collective bargaining, should rethink their approach. The policy reflects outdated views on marijuana and pain management, punishes players who seek an alternative to painkillers, keeps them in a perpetual state of injury and injury management, and risks creating new addicts.