Imagine that you get hit for a living. You may try to avoid it. But every time you don your uniform, you are getting paid to take it. Your job is to push your body to its limits. It is also to be in the way of others who are trying to stop you.

That is the life of many professional athletes. However in the American National Football League, this is the defining experience. And despite decades of fighting it, things are starting to come undone.

The many statistics are shocking. But perhaps this is the most shocking of all: professional football players are four times more likely than others to use opioids.

There are few groups of people, in other words, less vulnerable to pain, drug abuse and overdosing. What separates these athletes from skid row junkies in other words, is a very thin line.

Roger Goodwell League Commissioner

THE NFL GETS READY FOR A NEW OFFENSIVE

There was zero chance the NFL was ever going to be sidelined in legalization. And even the NFL knows that it has to change with the times. In early May, association leaders announced a game changing approach to cannabis.

They have to. They have already been pressed to consider medical use. Now they are preparing a proposal to make the sport’s drug policies “less punitive” with regards to recreational use of the drug.

This, of course, has the attention of the current League Commissioner Roger Goodell. A staunch opponent of the use of drug in sports is now ready to listen.

“To date, they haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players,” he said. “If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”

The question is, of course, particularly when it comes to football is the following. Is there really any such thing as “recreational use” of cannabis? These are people used to taking repeated charges and hits from other muscled men. Overwhelming, chronic pain is a way of life. So is finding ways to manage if not overcome it on a professional sports field.

The NFL’s drug policy is also something that is at odds with reality. The NFL does not release the results of its drug testing. Further, players who have a clean bill of health and have not violated league rules only get tested for drugs once a year. This also occurs during spring training season. For this reason, it is very easy to avoid if not cheat the tests. And everyone, including the players, know this.

The other issue of course is the policy of the NFL itself. The “anti-pot” stance of the League to date is not just owner policy. It is part of the collective bargaining agreement reached with the players. That means if the players refuse to go along with the policy, the League will not have a choice. While it is highly unlikely that the NFL will ditch its anti-pot policies overnight, there is a new window of opportunity.

The current collective bargaining agreement ends in 2020. Right around the time, in other words, that the federal discussion about marijuana legalization hits the presidential campaign season. No matter who is in the White House at that point will have to take a stand on federal legalization. The majority of states have now enacted medical reform. There will be no more room for debate. And at that point, the NFL will just follow rather than lead.

That is no secret in the U.S. at any level. And when it comes to all things cannabis right now, the tide has clearly turned bright green. In April, in fact, Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys said as much. At the recent meeting of NFL owners, he suggested that the league drop its prohibition on marijuana altogether.

Into that gap, a former player has now stepped up to issue unique challenge. And this being professional football, he has the money to put behind his mouth.

Jerry Jones Owner Dallas Cowboys

THE CASE OF EUGENE MONROE

Eugene Monroe is a fairly typical case. He is only 30 years old. However he took a public stand on medical use of the drug last year. And then paid a heavy price. He was star offensive tackle. He was also the highest paid player on the team with the highest absences. And after surgery he decided to advocate for the use of medical cannabis. The result was immediate. He lost his contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

However, he also started a debate which appears to be finally coming out a different point. The reason? Because the country is in a different place about pot. Plus his is a story that, beyond the paycheck, many Americans understand.

They also understand, viscerally, the fear of a drug test. Even if you are “only” using CBD cannabis. The idea of losing one’s highly paid job over using CBD rather than submitting to (legal) opioids by prescription is also not lost on anyone.

 “I have to manage it somehow. Managing it with pills was slowly killing me,” Monroe told the Washington Post. “Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of cannabis.”

Eugene Monroe

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Given the public attention on medical use, Monroe is likely to find a place within the burgeoning medical if not sports cannabis industry. He has also donated close to $100,000 this year to cannabis research. The recipients? John Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania – two of the pre-eminent research centres on the East Coast.

While it seems incredible that it has taken this long to get to this conversation, on another, it is a victory that it is taking place. The use of cannabis in professional sports (beyond other drugs) is also about to take a new turn. Research on sports medicine for overall system health is beginning to understand the value of cannabinoids in healthy systems.

Endurance sports advocates, including runners, are beginning speak up about cannabis use. It seemed inevitable that a player like Monroe would come out of the NFL sooner rather than later.

Much of the hypocrisy about drug use in the first place has been driven by the war on drugs. Prescription opioids and alcohol are some of America’s biggest problems. Cannabis may not be a cure all for those. However even the staunchest opponents of cannabis are now forced to face one fact. The conventional wisdom, science and public policy are shifting course. They will be required, however slowly, to do the same.

 

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