"I was sitting in the training room one day and I just watched player after player come in to take a Toradol shot just to practice," says former NFL player Ricky Williams. "I realized if we have to take all this medication, all these pharmaceuticals, just to practice it can't be good for our bodies in the long run. And that's when I started to look at my health seriously and look for alternatives."
Williams, the Heisman-winning running back who set multiple rushing records for the Miami Dolphins, was suspended by the NFL and then retired under a cloud of shame in 2003 for testing positive for marijuana.
Dolphins fans, the media, and the league all turned on Williams, labeling him an underachiever with a drug problem. Williams ultimately returned in 2005 and played several more seasons in the NFL, but the stigma never went away.
But what if the league and the public were wrong to judge Ricky Williams? What if he was just ahead of his time?
Some researchers are now finding evidence that cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) have two major benefits for athletes: 1) they act as a non-addictive pain reliever and 2) they can protect the brain from injury. These healing properties could be beneficial in a league where opioid addiction and concussions have become significant health concerns.
Williams is now part of a group of former NFL players who are lobbying the league to reconsider its position on marijuana.
The former NFL star was one of several athletes in attendance at the 420 Games in Santa Monica, CA this Spring representing the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, a group dedicated to the advancement of medical marijuana.
Cannabis is a banned substance under the NFL's player agreement and commissioner Roger Goodell has made clear that he will not change league policy to allow medicinal marijuana until research proves it is a legitimate drug.
But marijuana is classified as an illegal substance at the federal level, which makes getting grants and approval for research a long and arduous process. So former players are putting up their own money to get around the government's tight regulations and fund their own studies.
"Cannabis has been in the closet. It's been suppressed. It's coming out," says Constance Finley, founder of the cannabis extract firm Constance Therapeutics. Finley is working with the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition to produce the evidence players need to change NFL policy.
"The owners have to see responsible, smart people who are completely mainstream to have their experiences reflected, have their minds opened," says Finley. "I think that we could move past the impasse with the level of research that we're talking about doing. It will be irrefutable."
Players like Ricky Williams are hoping their participation in these studies can lead to change and help future athletes stay healthy long after their playing days are over.
"Hopefully as public opinion starts to change the leagues will soften their stance," says Williams. "Especially the NFL. They could really be ahead of the charge as far as getting this medicine to people who really need it."
"Wouldn't it be great if the NBA and the NFL and the other professional sports organizations accepted the validity of the science and the experience of their players and we came to a compromise of efficacy and performance and using cannabis oil to promote health instead of using opioids and other drugs [that] kill health?," says Finley. "There's this marvelous plant that with regular use could really truly minimize that damage. That's a beautiful story."
Approximately 5 minutes.
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