NFL and Cannabis Research

The league is taking a closer look at the plant’s painkilling potential.

by Jenn Sipes · April 04, 2022

cannabis use in the nfl

The league is taking a closer look at the plant’s painkilling potential

The National Football League and the NFL-NFLPA Joint Pain Management Committee (PMC) are awarding $1 million dollars in research funding to investigate the effects of cannabis for pain management in athletes as an alternative to opioids. The research grant is funding two teams of medical researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Regina.

The team of researchers at the University of California San Diego, led by Dr. Thomas Marcotte and Dr. Mark Wallace, will investigate the effects of cannabinoids on pain and recovery from sports-related injuries in elite athletes. The research team at the University of Regina, led by Dr. J. Patrick Neary, will study naturally produced cannabinoids for pain management as well as neuroprotection from concussion and engagement in contact sports. This research is projected to take three years.

The NFL statement released about the study states: “The specific goal of this project is to determine whether cannabis/hemp based cannabinoids, i.e., cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can be used safely and effectively for pain management and to reduce the use of prescription medications including opioids in post-concussion syndrome athletes.”

A Progressive Play

This is a big move for the NFL, a league that has for many years suspended players who tested positive for cannabis. The NFL introduced a new collective bargaining agreement in 2020, including a new drug policy under which players were no longer suspended for testing positive for marijuana use. As legal restrictions regarding cannabis use have loosened in a growing number of states and many NFL players have voiced their interest in cannabis and CBD for pain management, the NFL is finally stepping up their game.

The NFL is taking the necessary steps and precautions with their cannabis research funding to figure out if cannabis may be a safer and more effective alternative to treat pain. The powerful opioids used for pain management for NFL players has often been scrutinized by the public. In one study conducted by researchers at Washington University in St Louis School of Medicine, ESPN reported that over half of former NFL players admitted to using prescription opioids during their football career, and of those half, a whopping 71% admitted to misusing these drugs. In these findings, it was determined that retired NFL players misuse pain medications at a rate more than four times of the general public, due to the misuse of painkillers during their NFL careers.

Risks and Benefits

In a statement to The Associated Press, NFL chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills said: "We're always interested in trying to improve our approach and our treatment for acute and chronic pain in NFL players, and we always want to make sure that our players are receiving the most up-to-date medical consensus around any of these treatments." As many former NFL players have been known to misuse prescription opioids, looking into other alternatives is a smart move for the NFL.

A survey conducted by ESPN The Magazine found that 61% of NFL players believed that players would take fewer injections of painkillers like Toradol if they could treat pain legally with cannabis. Toradol, a strong anti-inflammatory drug, can have strong side effects such as intestinal bleeding when administered over a long period of time. Nearly 60% of the NFL players surveyed were worried about the long-term effects of chemical painkillers and 42% responded that a teammate had become addicted to them.

The survey also found that 71% of NFL players said they believed cannabis use should be legal. This comes as no surprise since several former NFL players are now involved in the medical cannabis business. Many former NFL athletes are preaching the benefits of CBD and THC over opioids and other prescription drugs. Some former NFL players have started their own brands, invested in medical cannabis companies, or have been hired as ambassadors. This includes big names like Bret Favre, Rob Gronkowski, and long-time cannabis activist Ricky Williams, to name a few.

Other Leagues Will Be Watching

The implications of the NFL-sponsored research could be significant. Simply undertaking such investigations will have other professional leagues taking note. If convincing evidence builds that football players can treat their knocks and bruises effectively without dangerous opioids, it will only be a matter of time before other sports leagues around the world, major and minor, begin funding their own research into cannabis and reconsidering their pain management protocols and regulations. At face value, it seems like a no-brainer, even from a more cynical business perspective–healthier players and healthier alumni make a better brand. As the NFL has been criticized for the misuse of opioids in former athletes, it is long overdue to look for alternatives in pain management. What do you think about the NFL and their research investment in cannabis?