NFL: Why Not Change Policy on Cannabis Use?


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The Super Bowl is over. Played next to the counter culture hub of the world, San Francisco, and won by the team representing the friendliest cannabis city in the world, Denver – weed was apart of the party. Yet, as many partook, NFL players are still not allowed to use cannabis. Team ownership and the NFL regularly test for THC. The permitted threshold for THC is 35 nanograms per milliliter of urine. This is an effective ban on cannabis use, as anything but a one time use would result in a failing test.

Given the Super Bowl is fresh in everyone’s mind, its a good opportunity to examine the NFL as a case study representing the misconceptions of the plant. Seen as a drug detrimental to players, cannabis use is strongly discouraged. Lately the NFL has faced flak from cannabis advocacy groups for the harsh punishment incurred by players using the plant. While the plant normalizes nationally, the NFL seems stuck in the past.

Cannabis, and its effect on your health, has been a confusing topic for most, the NFL included. Health information regarding the use(s) and efficacy of the plant is lacking. Furthermore, western medicine and its system of isolating chemicals, in order to make the ‘perfect,’ ‘safe’ prescription medication, does not coincide with the way cannabis heals our bodies. Cannabis does not fit into this one-molecule-approach. Rather, a holistic approach known as the entourage effect is employed in our bodies.

Cannabis affects our endocannabinoid system. This is an important physiological system with the role of promoting homeostasis. Homeostasis occurs when proper baseline function and communication is achieved between systems. Affecting the nervous system, digestive system, hormonal system, etc, cannabis calms overactive networks within our body by helping cells communicate.

When focusing on the NFL, players seem to benefit and enjoy cannabis use. This anecdotal evidence has lead many to question the NFL’s cannabis policy. If a player, coach, or fan briefly examined the benefits of cannabis, they would easily see how some question why the NFL doesn’t recognize the plant as medicine. The following will highlight a few common practices in the NFL that can be mitigated or reduced with medicinal cannabis use.

Toridol shots: Players line up outside of the trainer’s room and get shot up with a powerful anti-inflammatory called toridol before every game. Its an experience that was described to me by an ex NFL player and colleague of mine (I did not play in the league, only college). As a substitute, cannabis was essential to helping him compete on game day. Cannabis is anti-inflammatory, especially high CBD strains.

Opiate Based Painkillers: Many players get injuries. Prescribed by team doctors and paid for by team insurance, many players take opiate-based painkillers. This is standard operating medical procedure in the NFL. Recently cannabis has been touted by greats such as Jim McMahon for helping reduce painkiller use and dependence.

Concussions: Football is a rough sport that comes with implied risk, concussions being one of those risks. Professional level football is so physical that completing a season without sustaining a concussion is lucky. Cannabis use, especially used with intention, can help the brain and body recover from the rigors of the sport. Studies show cannabis is nueroprotective and has the ability to stimulate the growth of new brain cells, known as neurogenesis.

It’s no secret a large number of NFL players use cannabis on the regular. From ex NFL players Ricky Williams and Kyle Turley, to all the current players that use cannabis, many NFLers seem to benefit from the plants medicinal properties. Its been reported that 40% to 60% of NFL players consume cannabis, mostly to help recover from the physical trauma associated with their profession – as described by retired NFL tight end Nate Jackson on HBO’s Real Sports. 

Players seem to naturally gravitate towards the plant. Anecdotally they say it helps. As noted, Jim McMahon opened up about how the plant helped him kick his Percocet habit. Many players are beginning to talk about the ways in which the plant helped them deal with the physicality of an NFL career.

With all this information it seems the NFL would re-evaluate their stance on cannabis use. If the NFL truly wanted to provide the best care for their players they would allow for some cannabis reform and/or research. Instead they are falling behind the curve, striving to be politically correct, while they deny their players a potential treatment. And the future looks grim, with no cannabis reform on the horizon, the NFL continues to enforce an antiquated policy while they could be leading the way.


Don Schula has a MS from Humboldt State in exercise physiology. He is a published science writer, inventor, avid gardener, and lover of all things agricultural. Don wants to tell his truth about cannabis and how it fits in the world of sports and fitness from the eyes of a former division 1 athlete, long time strength coach, and personal trainer.

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