The NFL Is America's Newest Marijuana Battleground

The attitudinal shift regarding marijuana that is sweeping the country has now also embroiled the nation's premier professional sports league, the NFL, and the end result could soon be that the league will retreat from its harsh stance on the herb. But someone needs to clue in Commissioner Roger Goodell first.

The league pays its athletes exceedingly well, but also subjects them to brutal, physically punishing competition, and has been embroiled in repeated scandals around the consequences of an NFL career for players. The NFL has taken a public relations beating over its long-time laissez faire approach to the issue of concussions, and it is similarly under fire over the rampant over-prescribing of opioid painkillers. According to one study, former NFL players are dependent on opioids at a rate four times that of the population at large.

Acceptance of medical marijuana as a substitute for opioids has been slowing in coming, but the league has at least moved to lighten up somewhat on pot. In 2014, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed to increase the threshold for a positive cannabis test from 15 to 35 nanograms, effectively doubling the amount of pot necessary to create a positive test result—and subsequent disciplinary action.

And this year, the clamor for a more enlightened NFL marijuana policy has only grown louder, but Commissioner Goodell is proving recalcitrant.

"Listen, you’re ingesting smoke so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say," Goodell told ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” morning show last week. "It does have addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long-term. All of those things have to be considered. It’s not as simple as, you know, someone just wants to feel better after a game."

That isn't sitting well with some former players, who say that medical marijuana is a lifesaver for them.

"This pain is never going away. My body is damaged,” former Baltimore Raven Eugene Monroe told the Washington Post. "Managing it with pills was slowly killing me. Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of cannabis."

Last year, Monroe became the first active NFL player to publicly call on the league to allow medical marijuana. He was released by the Ravens three weeks after he went public with his position. Since then, he's become a leading advocate for changing the league's policy toward medical marijuana.

Fortunately, Goodell is increasingly isolated in his outdated views on marijuana, and the league appears to moving in Monroe's direction. Both team owners and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) are now calling for more enlightened policies.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones last month made encouraging comments about the league's need to revamp its approach to pot, reportedly calling on the league to drop its prohibition on marijuana in favor of a position more in tune with the times.

This week, the Cowboys doubled down, with Executive Vice President Stephen Jones going on ProFootballTalk Live to elaborate on his father's thoughts.

"I think Jerry’s opinion, my opinion, is this program, this system has been in place for a long time. I think it needs to be heavily scrutinized in terms of its results," Jones said in a clip that aired Thursday.

Changing societal attitudes toward marijuana should be factored in, too, he said.

"You know, I think it should be a part of what’s looked at," Jones said. "When you re-look at the whole program, I think you should take a look at every aspect of it. From the testing to the discipline to the amounts, anything to do with this. At the end of the day our goal should be to help players who have sicknesses and addictions and make them better people off the field, and then how we go about that I think is what needs to be looked at and make sure we’re doing everything the best way we can do it. Obviously, when you look at something like that you have to look at, ‘How do we do it in society right now? How does that affect the way a player sees his situation in that lens?’ And then make decisions based on that." 

The NFLPA is ready, and Executive Director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" this week that the union doesn't want to wait for the current contract to expire in 2020 to see changes to the league's pot policy—including not just medical marijuana, but also for players who just like to use weed.

"We intended to present a proposal to the league that has probably more of a therapeutic approach to those who test positive for marijuana," Smith said. "The idea is simply to make sure that we understand whether a player is suffering from something other than just a desire to smoke marijuana. I think all of us would want to have a process where if there was truly a problem, we’re treating the problem instead of just treating a symptom."

That would not be a comprehensive solution to the league's pot problem, but it would be a start. Focusing on medical marijuana as a way to reduce reliance on opioids among active and retired players would seem to be something even Roger Goodell could get behind. And he could earn the league some badly-needed brownie points after its concussion and opioid fiascos.

But the NFL is a league where at least six franchises--the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, and Seattle Seahawks—play in states where marijuana is already legal, and where the vast majority of teams play in states where medical marijuana is legal. While the current collective bargaining agreement doesn't expire until 2020, it's already time for the league to get on the ball when it comes to adopting an up-do-date marijuana policy.

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