Imagine running 30 miles an hour and then slamming your helmeted head into a brick wall.
That’s what a top-flight professional football player faces every game in one of the toughest contact sports in the world. They’d “get their bell rung” from hits like that, hoping their helmets would help cushion the blow.
But even the best helmets can’t stop the brain from slamming into the skull during an impact like those players’ experience. The damage is done.
The NFL has acknowledged the problem. The league has been using a concussion protocol since 2009 to assess a player when these sorts of hits happen and then take them out of the game if necessary. This season, the league toughened that ruling by creating penalties for teams that don’t follow the protocol.
Former NFL players applaud the moves by the league. But for those already suffering long-term effects of concussions, and for current players needing safer forms of pain relief, players want access to the healing effects of cannabinoids. That’s where the league draws the line.
For the past few years, researchers have been building a more convincing case that cannabinoids, also known as CBDs, can help treat the resulting damage from not only concussion but other pain of playing the sport. And more importantly, using CBD can reduce or end the use of dangerous and addictive opioids that team doctors give in handfuls to players to treat their ringing ears, pounding heads and aching joints.
“I don’t consider football to be a contact sport,” Marvin Washington, former NFL player, told DOPE Magazine at the exposition hall of the Los Angeles Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition in September. “I consider it a frickin’ collision sport.”
Washington—a 6-foot, 6-inch, 285-pound NFL star defensive end who played 155 games over 10 years for the New York Jets, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers—is one of a growing handful of former NFL players working to get the league to allow players to use CBDs to treat the kind of damage that playing the sport does to their bodies—and their minds.
He knows the relief CBD gives, because he vapes CBD every day.
The league continues to ban cannabis. “[NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell said that they are following the science,” Washington told DOPE. “We don’t need you to follow the science. We need you to lead the science.”
Washington said that opiates are poisoning the players during their playing years and then leave or retire from the game to deal with the damage on their own. “So you cut this former NFL player off from insurance after three years, and you turn them out and want them to be a productive member of society,” Washington said. “How is that a productive member of society when he is sitting in his mother’s kitchen thinking about drinking bleach because he is so addicted and lost everything? I know plenty of guys like that. I have seen guys leave the game full-blown alcoholics. But I have never seen a guy that is smoking too much weed that it has become an issue. I just have never seen that.”
Among professional sport leagues, the NFL’s marijuana policies are strict. The National Hockey League, like Major League Baseball, is much more lenient on players who test positive for cannabis in their system, according to its policy.
“If there is any sport that should be looking at the whole cannabis plant, it’s football,” Washington said. “It’s a natural fit.”
There may be hope coming soon. In a memo sent to all teams in July, Goodell wrote that the league will be looking for a new medical officer who will continue and expand upon initiatives and expert resources that are “designed to accelerate science, identify new technologies and means of preventing and treating injuries, and make our sport safer.”
Academia is stepping up their efforts in cannabinoid studies as well.
The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has partnered with the non-profit group, Realm of Caring, which offers support services for people using cannabinoid therapy, to track and record the effects of CBD.
Researchers Dr. Ryan Vandrey, who does research on the behavioral pharmacology of cannabis for Johns Hopkins, and Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller, who studies substance use and anxiety symptoms and disorders for the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, are also helping with this tracking and recording data collection effort, and will be involved in studies on the efficacy of CBD for treating pain and degenerative brain disease related to NFL players.
But there is clearly more work to be done.
Other former NFL players such as Jake Plummer, Nate Jackson and Eugene Monroe—working with hemp producer CW Botanicals and supporting the mission of Realm of Caring—have also stepped up into the light to describe their experiences in the sport and how cannabis has helped them overcome both the physical and mental issues they have faced.
“We are all going in the same direction,” Washington said, adding that he is working on getting a grant to conduct a CBD study at Harvard University. “I am going at it from a different angle. Because when I first approached the NFL, they said ‘Marvin, be neutral and play the political game.’ … So that’s what I am doing.”