Athletes that contend in the National Football League are considered to be among the most elite, brutal and energetic of all sport entertainers. The level of competitiveness on the field is almost unmatched by any other sport. To be competitive in the NFL it means recovering quicker, training harder and giving everything you have on that field to achieve greatness. Most every player dreams, aspires and is willing to do anything it takes to become great. The demand to deliver on every technical, athletic and fundamental aspect of the game is an ever-increasing pressure from fans, coaches and owners. When an individual operates at such an extreme intensity, the wear and tear, bodily harm and collision damages contribute to possible future health complications and punishing amounts of pain athlete’s experience. The NFL substance abuse policy states that abusers risk the possibility of docked pay, suspensions and further consequence for using medical marijuana instead of prescribed pharmaceuticals to treat pain and injury. However, dozens of athletes are continuing to “abuse” medical marijuana despite NFL policy. It is apparent that there is a substance consuming and harming a large portion of NFL athletes, and it’s not marijuana.
The current substance abuse policy enforced by the NFL includes “improper use of prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, illegal drugs and alcohol. The agreement prohibits the use, possession, and distribution of drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, opiates MDPA and PCP. Amphetamines also fall under this policy unless the player has a legitimate documented, need to treat a medical condition”. The substance abuse policy allows the NFL to discipline athletes for refusing to test, failing to test or manipulating the test sample (Bostick).
In 2011, a study by the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine found that 52% of retired players said they have used prescription pain medicine during their playing days. The study also demonstrated that 71% of those who used prescription drugs, misused medication and 15% of misusers claimed they had misused the medication within the past 30 days (Silverman). This study demonstrates a trend of high volume drug usage among retired NFL players and should raise a few red flags for the NFL. Reports of extraordinary amounts of pain medicine usage and abuse would seem to call for some sort of internal investigation, since the NFL is strict and serious in regards to their substance abuse policy. Well… Not entirely.
Although there is a strict substance abuse policy that is enforced by the NFL, a recent disclosure of information from retired NFL players brings light to the problems that exist and surround current and previous painkiller abuse in the NFL. Federal Drug Enforcement agents conducted a surprise inspection on various NFL teams on November 17th, 2014. The surprise inspection was inspired by a class action lawsuit involving 1,300 retired NFL players filed earlier that year (Novus).
For the NFL, it is good for public relations and brand image to have policy prohibiting drug abuse. However, if these athletes didn’t have the availability to painkillers, they couldn’t maintain the intensity of play that is demanded from fans, coaches and owners. In order to sustain the high levels of energy, hard-hitting plays and outstanding performances, NFL teams would require a much larger roster and would still have difficulty producing the same quality of entertainment. So when you examine it, a correlation can be made between pharmaceutical companies and the profitability of the NFL. During the DEA’s surprise inspection in 2014, NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy said, “Our teams cooperated with the DEA today and we have no information to indicate that irregularities were found” (Silverman).
It is difficult to conceptualize the NFL’s intentions when such vagueness is given to the word “irregularities”. It is also problematic to claim that no irregularities were found, especially in the mists of a class action lawsuit involving 1,300 previous NFL players in regards to the encouragement and use of prescription drugs without a doctor prescription. In direct correlation, while heading into the 2015 season, a total of 19 players were banned for substance abuse. The majority due to marijuana, a few alcohol-related incidents and zero related to painkillers or sleeping pills (Bloom). Meanwhile, President of the NFL Physicians Society, Matt Matava stated that, “The NFL team doctors strive to comply with all regulations in prescribing and dispensing drugs to our patients, the players.” However, the class action law suit alleges that “NFL medical staffs regularly violate federal and state laws in plying their teams with powerful addictive narcotics such as Percocet and Percodan, sleeping pills such as Ambien and the non-addictive pain killer Toradol to help them play through injuries on game days.”(Novus). Here we have a few hundred handfuls of retired NFL players pleading their case that NFL medical staff was pushing these painkilling drugs on these athletes to keep them on the field and injury free. Not knowing the damages, addiction and hardship that can come years down the road. While on the flip side, the NFL representatives are making the case that they uphold and enforce their drug abuse policy. But instead of launching an internal investigation to show concern for a possible substance abuse problem throughout the league, the NFL was being investigated by the DEA in result of victimized and retired athletes wanting compensation and change from the NFL. These factors provide further evidence to some level of perceived interest from the NFL in regards to the continuation of NFL athletes consuming these drugs.
NFL players absolutely deserve the medical attention that they require to treat their ongoing injuries, body aches and pain. However, the athlete’s overall health and future wellbeing should be the top priority for the NFL, NFL staff and the pharmaceutical suppliers. The amounts of retired NFL players that have come forward exposing the addiction rates for pain killers in the NFL provides enough motive that safer alternatives need to be implemented or developed in regards to pain relief treatment. However, big pharmaceutical companies are spending significantly more money on marketing opposed to research and development. In fact, in 2013 the top 10 big pharmaceutical industries spend $98.3 billion on marketing and only $65.8 billion on research and development (Swanson). This demonstrates that these companies aren’t primarily interested in creating a safer product. Evidently, their top concern is to increase consumption rates of current products. If pharmaceutical’s interest are not for the wellbeing of these athletes, then at least give the athletes what they want, marijuana, or at least give them a choice of what they put in their bodies.
There are currently 23 states and Washington D.C that permit and attribute medicinal value to medical marijuana. As I mentioned previously, 19 NFL players were suspended upon entering the 2015 season due to substance abuse in which a majority of the suspensions were marijuana related. “Cannabis has been part of my football experience since I started,” said Nate Jackson, former Denver Bronco wide receiver, “I never liked the pills and medicated with cannabis” (Kounang). The number of players turning to marijuana for pain relief is steadily increasing despite the risk and punishment from the NFL. “When I played, 40 to 50 percent of the league used it” according to Jamal Anderson, former Atlanta Falcons running back “its at least 60 percent now” (Freeman). The existing ways to manage pain consist of the current painkillers, opioids and non-inflammatory medications that most athletes fear due to the proven side effects. Evidence and forthcomings of retired NFL athletes raise concerns in current NFL athletes regarding addiction and the possibility of overdose while consuming these prescription medications. “All over our country people are addicted, and that’s happening in our locker rooms” said Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle, Eugene Monroe. Monroe is the first current NFL player to publicly take a positive stance on medical marijuana along with the notion to research and examine the possible benefits the drug possesses.
The high demand for medical marijuana use in the NFL is undeniable and evident. By banning marijuana, the NFL is giving players an ultimatum. These addictive and potentially life altering pharmaceutical drugs are the only option to relieve their pain. The athletes can be in pain, consume painkillers or risk suspension without pay solely due to the NFL’s prohibition of what should be an athlete’s choice.
Bostick, Dani. “What You Need to Know about the NFL’s Substance Abuse Policy.” Www.behindthesteelcurtain.com. 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.
“Federal Drug Agents Raid NFL Medical Offices After Former Players Launch Class Action Suit Against League | Novus Medical Detox Center.” Novus Medical Detox Center. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.
Silverman, Robert. “The NFL Runs on Piles of Painkillers.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2016
Swanson, Ana. “Big Pharmaceutical Companies Are Spending Far More on Marketing than Research.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
Bloom, Steve. “NFL 2015 Suspension List for Substances of Abuse & PEDs.” CelebStoner.com. 2 Sept. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
Kounang, Nadia. “Is It Time for Football to Reconsider Marijuana?” CNN. Cable News Network, 9 Mar. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.
Freeman, Mike. “NFL Players View Pot as a Savior.” Bleacher Report. Turner Sports Network, 2015. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.