The world of weed has changed dramatically over the past decade. While the use of cannabis (including both CBD and marijuana) has traditionally been on the down-low, more professional athletes than ever before are using medical cannabis.
Many of these pro athletes are football players.
Not only is professional football one of the most-loved American sports, it’s also one of the most dangerous.
Most football fans forget just how physically demanding the game truly is. Injuries in professional (and amateur) football are common.
Many contend cannabis can help.
The benefits professional football players are getting from cannabis are unprecedented.
Here we’ll take a deeper look at the benefits of both CBD and THC in the world of professional football.
Football: The Most-Loved Sport in America…and the Injuries it Entails
Football may be the most-loved sport in America, but it definitely comes with a dark side.
To say it’s a rough game is almost putting it mildly. And there are plenty of injuries that regularly occur to those who have committed themselves to playing the sport professionally.
Some of the most common include knee ligament injuries (the most common), foot and ankle injuries (including breaks, sprains, and more), shoulder injuries (rotator cuff is most common), shin splints, torn muscles, and more.
All injuries NFL players face are serious, but perhaps the most serious of all are the head injuries they suffer.
Here we’ll take a deeper look at just how serious the head injuries sustained by pro football players truly are.
The Prevalence of Head Injuries in the NFL
Research indicates that head and brain injuries are extremely common in athletes that play in the NFL.
Here’s something to consider.
Research published in July 2017 found that almost every professional football player whose family had donated their brain for study after death had a degenerative brain disease.
How much is “almost every?”
110 out of 111.
That’s more than 99 percent that displayed indication of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a progressive degenerative brain disease that is found in individuals with a history of recurring brain injury.
This repeated trauma to the brain causes a progressive degeneration of brain tissue, while also causing a buildup of an abnormal protein known as tau. Common symptoms of CTE include:
- Memory loss
- Impulse control issues
- Suicidal thoughts
- Progressive dementia
According to the study’s lead author Dr. Ann McKee, “Families don’t donate brains of their loved ones unless they’re concerned about the person. So all the players in this study, on some level, were symptomatic. That leaves you with a very skewed population.”
McKee went on to add that CTE is seen in an extremely large number of individuals that participated in football for many years. “While we don’t know the exact risk and we don’t know the exact number,” she says, “we know this is a problem in football.”
CTE is certainly serious. But it’s not the only brain injury common to professional football players. Some other common head injuries sustained by players in the NFL include:
Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
A concussion is considered a mild form of TBI, and TBI can be considered “mild, moderate, or severe.”
This severity of TBI is typically measured by how long the individual was unconscious and how long they experienced memory loss. Symptoms of brain injury can include: confusion, memory loss, chronic fatigue, trouble concentrating, problems communicating, and more.
A cerebral contusion is a bruise to the brain. Symptoms of a cerebral contusion could include: headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and seizures.
A hematoma is an irregular buildup of blood outside of the blood vessels. An intracranial hematoma is when blood accumulates in the area between the brain and the skull. This is something that puts pressure on the brain, which could result in a serious medical emergency.
The True Cost of Injuries Sustained by Football Players
A recent report published in the New York Times found that both current and retired NFL players are misusing opioid painkillers at a higher rate than others in the general population.
All the injuries football players sustain, you see, come with a lot of pain. And if one wants to get back in the game as soon as possible, what better way to do so than strong prescription painkillers?
The problem is, opioid painkillers are typically passed out like candy in the NFL. And seeing that in recent years players in the NFL have gotten increasingly larger, the painkillers they’re prescribed are a lot more potent.
Former defensive tackle Aaron Gibson, who’s played for the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Chicago Bears said he received his first prescription for painkillers in his rookie year. Now that he’s retired and has a high tolerance for these meds, Gibson says he seeks out stronger and more risky meds like high-dose Oxycontin.
“I was running through those like nothing,” Gibson told the New York Times. “One doctor who thought he was the only one treating me said, ‘Aaron, what I’m prescribing you is what I’d give a Stage IV cancer patient.”
While Gibson stopped taking prescription painkillers three years ago, after he retired he contends he was taking up to 200 pills a day.
“If I didn’t play in the NFL,” he says, “I know I wouldn’t have been in this situation.”
Gibson is one of countless NFL players that have found themselves in the same position. This is exactly what has led numerous NFL players (and other professional athletes) to embrace CBD.
How CBD and THC Can Benefit Football Players: Professional Athletes Speak Out
Cullen Jenkins played ball for the NFL for 13 seasons. He helped lead the Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl XLV victory. In 2016, he was cut by the Washington Redskins, something that made him feel “unimportant” and like he “didn’t really matter.”
According to Jenkins, he used to drink a half-fifth of vodka and several beers to chase it every day. He started drinking so he could sleep, but after the drinking made him sick when he woke up, he would take pills to get rid of the pain, then drink again to try to sleep.
“you have that sense of — I guess, not of being a failure, but not being good enough as well,” Jenkins told SB Nation. “I went through a while where I wouldn’t get out of bed until 2 in the afternoon. You just felt kind of like a bum, or you just felt like — I don’t know there’s a word that I’m looking for to use.”
Then Jenkins (reluctantly) tried CBD oil. And this is when his entire outlook on life changed.
“I thought I was going to be high. I thought I was going to be tripping the same things as weed. But it wasn’t anything like that,” says Jenkins. “It’s more of a mellow, calming, smooth feeling. I felt pretty good.”
Jenkins isn’t the only former professional football player who feels the same. Never mind that the NFL still bans players from using CBD even though the World Anti-Doping Agency removed it from its list of prohibited substances in 2017.
In a recent Forbes article, several former pro football players were interviewed and asked their stance regarding marijuana use with athletes and how they felt about the NFL’s ban against it.
Grant Mattos, former San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos, and Tennessee Titans player had this to say: “Opioids nearly killed me. Cannabis, and a lot of love from friends and family, pulled me out of a very dark place when the NFL dream died.”
Joe Montana, four-time Super Bowl champion and one of the most famous names in NFL football, says, “Legalization is picking up steam on a global level and I feel like now is the time to spread information about the curing capabilities of this plant. As with any medicine, increased accessibility comes with the need for education.”
In a 2017 interview with ESPN, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell let his stance against marijuana be heard loud and clear.
“Listen,” said Goodell, “you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say. It does have an addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that might not be healthy for the players long-term.”
And the opioids that are prescribed freely to opioids aren’t addictive?
“it’s not as simple as someone just wants to feel better after a game,” Goodell added. “We really want to help our players in that circumstance, but I want to make sure that the negative consequences aren’t something that is going to be something that we’ll be held accountable for some years down the road.”
There were several that spoke out about Goodell’s comments.
Anna Valent is one of them. She is the Executive Director of Athletes for CARE, a nonprofit dedicated to allowing professional athletes medical cannabis and other wellbeing resources.
“This isn’t about locker rooms filled with smoke and stoned athletes high on whatever the neighborhood drug dealer grew in his basement,” said Valent. “We are talking about specific strains, specific cannabinoids, the ratio of CBD-to-THC, micro-dosing, topicals, edibles, oils, etc.”
Cullen Jenkins had the following to say to Goodell: “Look, Roger. You’re playing with people’s lives, with people’s wellbeing…Why can’t the NFL, the biggest moneymaking sport (I believe) in the U.S. be the leader in cannabis? The NFL is a leader, a role model. If they took a step in the right direction with cannabis, other people would start to take notice and learn about the medical benefits of cannabis.”
In an open letter to Goodell, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, expressed that while he’s a fan of football as a spectator sport, he’s “becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the growing specter that many of these athletes will pay the price of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to a greater or lesser extent as they grow older.”
Why Professional Football Players Find Benefit in CBD and Cannabis
It’s estimated that former NFL players suffer from opioid addiction at four times the rate of the general population. Not only are cannabinoids CBD and THC known to help in the management of difficult to treat pain, but there is also emerging evidence in the role cannabis in opioid use disorder.
Both CBD and THC are known to help with anxiety and depression, something many football players suffer with after their careers end. Research shows that CBD contains both antidepressant and anxiolytic properties.
And while clinical research is lacking on the effects of THC for depression (its legal status has made research difficult), there is some research that indicates it can help. People have, after all, been consuming psychoactive strains of cannabis to enhance mood for years.
One area in particular where cannabis compounds like THC and CBD show great promise is for CTE.
In 1998, a groundbreaking study was published that highlighted CBD and THC as neuroprotective antioxidants. Results of the research conducted were so promising that the US government patented cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. According to this patent, CBD and THC can reduce “neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke or trauma.”
A 2014 study found that a “positive THC screen is associated with decreased mortality in adult patients sustaining TBI.”
Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are known to help with traumatic brain injury…and anyone who has played or is playing in the NFL should have access to treatment with medical cannabis.
In 2016, the Realm of Caring Foundation launched “When the Bright Lights Fade,” a campaign aimed to help raise money to study the effects of cannabinoids to help treat and prevent symptoms linked to traumatic brain injury and CTE.
Still, the NFL stands firmly against marijuana as medicine.
This isn’t to say, however, that the ban on cannabis in the NFL will last forever.
What is the Future of CBD and Medical Cannabis in the NFL (and Professional Sports in General?
Despite the opposition from the powers that be, there’s hope that NFL and other professional athletes will one day be able to medicate exactly as they please. There are, after all, plenty of people that stand behind this common goal.
Lindy Snider is a partner at Treehouse Global Ventures and a board member at Athletes for Care. She says, “Pro athletes have banded together to help move the conversation by getting educated about the science around cannabis. Where there were once just solitary voices of individual athlete advocates, they have grown along with the industry itself into a powerful voice for good. And whereas players used to figuratively pound their fists insisting on league rule changes to allow cannabis, they now recognize the need to be on the same side of the table as the leagues and are working to help fund as well as participate in scientific studies which prove its efficacy.”
Marvin Washington is a former Super Bowl champ that played 11 seasons in the NFL. Today, cannabis is Washington’s life work. He is an investor, an advocate and an entrepreneur who says he’s hopeful about the future of cannabis in the NFL.
“The NFL is now more aware of this,” says Washington. “They have changed some testing policies. The discussion of a bigger change in policy is being held. You have more team owners openly talking about changing the cannabis policy at the NFL and having cannabis as an alternative to opioids. Things are changing. Maybe not as fast as people would like them to, but they are changing, and we’re making sure we’re doing things right. I think in a few years, we’ll see cannabis integrated not only into the NFL, but to all professional sports.
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