The Pain Game: CTE, Synthetic Marijuana and the Cost of Playing America’s Favorite Sport

The National Football League is the gold standard of professional sports. It is America’s game, a $13 billion behemoth that practically owns a day of the week.  To simply earn a roster spot in the league means you are in the top one percent of the top one percent of today’s athletes – the biggest, strongest and fastest that America has to offer. The NFL has the power to turn a nobody into a somebody; a pauper into a king. But there’s a cost. Football players make a conscious decision to trade their own physical well-being for money in a cold corpse-for-cash deal. With every snap, hit and tackle, they risk long-term health. While the relationship between pain and football is as old as the sport itself, the unseen consequences are dire and more significant than previously imagined.

By all accounts, Junior Seau was a good man. Beloved by his family and teammates, he was one of the most popular players in the league throughout his career which included stints with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. Selected to the Pro Bowl twelve times, Seau retired after the 2009 season, his body broken from years of abuse at football’s expense. After a lifetime spent playing the game, it was time for him to move on. But while the damage to his body was immense, no one could have predicted that it paled in comparison to the unseen mutilation football inflicted on his brain. On May 2, 2012, Seau committed suicide. He shot himself in the chest, leaving his brain untouched.

After an autopsy, it was confirmed that Seau’s brain showcased similar symptoms to others that had undergone repeated head trauma. Although not confirmed, it is believed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head. What is especially concerning about Seau, however, is that he had no officially documented concussions in his career. The qualities that made him an excellent football player and teammate – his warrior-like mentality to continue playing despite screams from his brain and body to stop – ultimately led to his untimely death.

Since its inception, football has become ingrained into our culture. As a sport, it is attractive because it rewards a quality Americans have always valued: toughness. To succeed, you have to have an inherent resiliency that most people, me included, can’t comprehend. Dealing with the pain of playing professional football on a daily basis is a struggle. From an early age, football players are trained to remain quiet and not complain; that no excuse is good enough to sit out. If you’re hurt, you’re weak. But the toughness that NFL franchises prize has resulted in players injecting harmful substances – one in particular – into their bodies: synthetic marijuana. Unlike its traditional counterpart, synthetic marijuana is not considered a banned substance under NFL rules.

This is perplexing, especially considering that regular marijuana use will generally garner a player a hefty fine and suspension, and the consequences increase for repeat offenders. This has opened a dangerous door for players, as the side-effects of synthetic cannabinoids are unknown and unpredictable. With relaxed rules, there has been a spike in players that have found themselves at the mercy of the drug’s side effects. A recent victim is Chandler Jones, a star defensive end who was recently traded from the New England Patriots to the Arizona Cardinals. In January, Jones appeared unannounced at a Foxboro police station at 7:40 a.m. Unusual? Absolutely.

But to make matters more bizarre, he was shirtless and disoriented.According to the TMZ report, “When cops sprinted toward Jones, he laid down on his stomach with his arms wide out – and told cops, “I’m Chandler Jones” … and that he had “been told” to come to the station. Cops say Jones was unable to provide them with an explanation about why he was there.” Soon after the initial encounter, paramedics were called, and Jones spent the night in the hospital.

The NFL is lagging behind the rest of America. Recreational marijuana is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, and is available for medicinal purposes in 23 states. It is irrational for the NFL to punish players for using a pain-relieving substance that is legal in the state in which they play, opting instead to let them risk the dangerous side-effects of the manufactured version. The league must investigate every available avenue to give its players the best medical treatment possible.

The warrior-like mentality and forced silence ingrained in football players is causing them to precariously take matters into their own hands. For some, this means taking synthetic marijuana in hopes of bypassing league rules. For others, the pain is so suffocating that they see no other choice than to take their own life. I can’t imagine the personal anguish that Junior Seau must have endured in his final years. There is no greater tragedy than a person who feels so hopelessly alone that they take it upon themselves to commit suicide. Stories like his are heartbreaking, yet are usually only known once it becomes too late.

Despite legitimate concerns about the well-being of its employees, the NFL has only grown in popularity. Nearly 112 million people watched the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 – roughly a third of the country’s population. Many people claim that the NFL is too big to fail. Others contend that health concerns will eventually catch up to football. Nevertheless, the National Football League remains America’s most popular sport. As long as players are willing to trade their health for a shot at playing at the highest level, the game will remain a socioeconomic monster. At the end of the day, the allure of football is a drug – one more powerful than the ones players are taking to mask the suffering that comes from playing the pain game.





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