If a recent lawsuit filed by former National Football League players is to be believed, professional football teams hand out powerful painkillers by the handful on the sidelines before games, after practices, during halftimes, and just about any time a player complains of any injury or nagging pain.
But while America's most popular sports league is awash in opioids, the NFL maintains a strict rule against players' use of marijuana—either for recreational purposes or as an alternative way to treat aches and pains. Sports are a mirror for the culture that watches them, and the NFL's contradictory positions on those two types of pain treatments certainly reflects both the rising opioid crisis in America and the ongoing effort to come to terms with the tragic and awful consequences of a decades-long war on drugs.
Dallas Cowboys' owner—and the most powerful billionaire in the NFL's inner circle of powerful billionaires—Jerry Jones is pushing the league to reconsider those rules and loosen the ban on marijuana. According to anonymous sources cited by NBC Sports' Mike Florio, Jones raised the issue of marijuana at a closed-door meeting of NFL team owners last week.
Jones "wants the league to drop its prohibition on marijuana use," Florio reported. "Jones was reminded that the issue falls under the umbrella of collective bargaining, which would require the players to make one or more concessions in exchange for significant changes to the marijuana prohibition." The current collective bargaining agreement runs until 2020, so its unlikely the league would be able to change it's policy until then.
Still, it's good to get the discussion started. Jones probably has some self-interested reasons for pursuing such a change—Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas' superstar running back, was spotted at a marijuana dispensary last year when the Cowboys traveled to Seattle for a preseason game (because that's where almost any 21-year old with lots of disposable income visiting Washington State is going to end up, sooner or later), prompting a league "investigation"—but that doesn't mean the league shouldn't seriously consider what he had to say.
The NFL's anti-marijuana stance simply doesn't make much sense as more state governments adopt more liberal views towards 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. More than 60 percent of NFL teams (20 of them, out of 32 total) play in states where medical marijuana is legal. Again, this mirrors a 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.
The league's anti-pot policy might make a degree of sense if it was part of an overall effort to prevent teams from using painkillers of any kind, lest some players or teams gain a competitive advantage on the gridiron. That's hardly the case. In fact, 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.
Deadspin reported extensively on the details on the lawsuit last month, including stunning details like this:
On November 22, 2003, the night before an away game in Baltimore, Maryland, trainer Ken Smith gave named Plaintiff Jerry Wunsch an Ambien. The next day, before the game, Coach Holmgren asked Mr. Wunsch if he could play, despite excruciating pain down the whole right side of his body, to which Mr. Wunsch replied "I can't play, Coach. I can't play today. It's my first game. I just can't do it." Coach Holmgren then called Sam Ramsden, the Seahawks' trainer, and asked "what can we do to help Mr. Wunsch play today." Mr. Ramsden brought the doctors over, who gave him a 750 mg dose of Vicodin and Tylenol-Codeine #3, saying they would help, even though Mr. Wunsch was already taking anti-inflammatories as prescribed by his doctors. He played – feeling high – and after half time, the Medications wore off and he told anyone who would listen that he could not play anymore, but Mr. Ramsden, the head trainer, gave him another 750 mg of Vicodin on the field for the second half, telling Mr. Wunsch, "Don't sue me personally for this."
"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. "NFL owners think marijuana is something players do to get around the system, not knowing that it's actually allowing them to be in the system. It's allowing them to deal with the rigors of the game."
The NFL's war on marijuana began in the 1980s and actually pre-dates the league's ban on using steroids (marijuana was banned in 1982, steroids the next year). The league implemented suspensions for players caught using weed in an agreement signed with the players union in 1989. Though the current collective bargaining deal loosened some of the NFL's marijuana rules, the league has the strictest punishments among America's major professional sports. A positive test by NFL standards is more than 35 nanograms per milliliter, while Major League Baseball allows 50 nanograms per milliliter and the World Anti-Doping Agency (which sets guidelines for the Olympics and other international events) allows up to 150 nanograms per milliliter.
Players that fail drug tests in the NFL get punished more harshly too. Fines start after a second offense and a fourth offense results in a four game suspension (a quarter of the regular season). By comparison, a player in the National Basketball Association faces a 10 game suspension (about 12 percent of the season) following a fourth offense.
Today, as the rest of America reconsiders the decades-long, endlessly wasteful war on drugs, it only makes sense that the NFL would do the same. In this case—even if it pains many football fans to admit it—Jerry Jones is right.