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Should the NFL Let Players Use Pot for Pain?

Football is a painful and dangerous game. I played it as a young man and have the creaky old man’s knees to prove it. And it has become even more painful and dangerous as the athletes get bigger, stronger, faster, better trained, and more elite.

Pain and danger don’t stop people from playing football – or watching it. Violence may even be part of the attraction. The highlight films always focus on the really big hits. Players get carted off the field, or walk off limping or dazed – but the game must go on.

The NFL has been extremely slow, deceptive, and reluctant in adopting the necessary changes to make football safer. Billionaire owners fear that a less “manly” game might also be less entertaining and profitable. They have much less interest in protecting players than worry about potentially killing their golden goose. The gladiatorial show takes precedence over the the safety of the performers. Thus it was in Rome, thus it is now in stadiums and on TV across the country.

Tightened rules, noncontact practices, and more padding might reduce injuries and prevent concussions – but also might discourage fans who enjoy football precisely because it is a bloodsport.

And I must admit that I too still love to watch football games. How easy to forget or rationalize away the fact that the players are harming their bodies and their minds, perhaps permanently, for my casual and temporary entertainment.

A New Twist

Retired NFL players were once a passive lot, cast off brusquely by their owners after what were often only very brief careers. A very few players remained stars for life and many had successful second careers, but a substantial minority suffered a steep downward drift, worsened by the physical and mental infirmities that followed their fleeting blaze of glory.

The NFL concussion scandal increased the visibility and assertiveness of retired players and caused a dramatic change in NFL rhetoric about the risks and dangers of the game.

Now there is a new and very interesting development. Several retired players have recently raised a very pertinent question that has crucial safety implications for them, for active NFL players, for younger athletes, and for the public at large.

The Question: Why is it okay for current and retired football players to relieve their inevitable pains by taking dangerous opioid pills prescribed by their team doctors – but decidedly not okay for them to use much less dangerous pot for the same pain relieving purpose?

They make a very powerful point. Prescription opioids kill tens of thousands of people a year and cause millions of addictions. Pot is far from harmless, but kills no one via overdose and is much less addictive.

The NFL is now forced to face its prior pot/opioid hypocrisy. Its discussion will occur in the goldfish bowl of the sports pages, TV, and talk radio and will likely influence the attitudes of young athletes and also of the general public.  

For some players – active and retired – with severe, unresponsive and persistent chronic pain, the choice may reduce to the almost pure evil of opioid addiction and the much lesser evil of pot. It is unrealistic to think that less extreme measures will work for everyone. Some players (and people) will want to pick the lesser poison and, if permitted, would choose the safer pot over the more dangerous prescribed opioid. Question is whether the NFL will let tbem. Pot smoking athletic heroes offer a terrible model for kids, but opioid addled athletes, risking overdose, are even worse sports heroes.

Hypocritical Politicians and Owners

We have already discussed in previous blogs how irrational it is for deadly opioid drugs to be legal, while pot is still illegal in a substantial minority of states, restricted to medical use in the majority, allowed for recreational use in only a few, and attacked everywhere by the blindly “law and order” Trump administration.

Newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made fighting the legalization of pot one of his highest priorities. He recently claimed that pot is “only slightly less awful” than heroin…-Allen Frances

Newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made fighting the legalization of pot one of his highest priorities. He recently claimed that pot is “only slightly less awful” than heroin – even though no one dies from pot overdoses and tens of thousands die each year from opioids. And he spouts his prejudices in characterically stigmatizing, self righteous, and ignorant moral terms: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Drug companies that ruthlessly push opioids and kill tens of thousands of people a year are good people – largely because they contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to politicians and hire them as lobbyists when they leave office. Pot users are bad people, even though the drug they use never directly kills anyone. For most users, pot is no more dangerous than alcohol and, for all users, it is much safer than opioids.

The NFL is also a serial practitioner of drug hypocrisy. It tightly controls relatively harmless pot, but condones dangerous opioid use – whatever it takes to keep the gladiators banging heads on the field. The NFL preaches player safety, but practices ruthless profit seeking.


In a rational world, the rules of the game would be further modified to reduce risk of injuries and concussions, practices would be strictly non-contact, equipment would be more protective, players would be pulled whenever injured, and opioids would be prohibited.

Only two things will change NFL owner misbehavior: terrible publicity and expensive liability lawsuits. Retired players have been skillful in promoting both and will likely continue to pressure the owners on drug policies and player safety.

Current players owe them a great debt. It is also important for them to realize that the team doctor may be a drug pusher eager to get them back in play, whatever the long-term consequences. The long-term risks of using opioids for play-related pain relief can’t possibly be worth the long-term risks.  




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