It’s Time to Support Active NFL Athletes Using Weed for Pain

Because opioid addiction is way worse than smoking pot.

Welcome to the NFL—a multi-billion-dollar industry riddled with brain injuries, chronic pain, millions of paying fans, and a yearly Super Bowl game that costs and generates tens of millions of dollars. If you are a third-string player on an okay team, you stand to make a lot of money. If you’re one of the best, ready to brave a life of injury and pain, you could be a multimillionaire until the day you die.

Until recently, CTE, a traumatic brain injury that comes from multiple concussions, was sort of swept under the rug by the NFL. There was little money (or maybe desire) to scientifically prove that NFL players were really suffering as bad as they claimed. That is until this year, when the CDC and NFL have finally admitted that football can do real damage to the body. Especially the head. 

All that real pain is being combatted by prescription painkillers, given out to players like candy.

If, as a football fan, the toll taken by your favorite players is no surprise to you, congratulations for realizing that multiple concussions and a career accumulation of injuries might ruin these athletes’ lives forever. If, as the evidence exposing CTE and other afflictions kept stacking up, you kept watching without a care, amused and sticking to your fandom, there’s still some redemption for you; Maybe it’s time we let professional athletes smoke weed for pain. And maybe now is the time we stop judging them for doing it. 

Just this week, Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiver Josh Huff was pulled over for speeding and was taken away for possession of weed and an no-permit handgun. Whatever criminal charges are or are not applied to Huff, the NFL will mete out its own, separate form punishment. You have to wonder that they might be more worried about the weed than the gun.

Athletes caught with weed are subject to the NFL’s no-drug policy, and a severe no-tolerance rule.

Perhaps the rules here, the ones that were made during the height of the weed-is-so-fucking-bad War on Drugs, do not match up with the NFL’s current situation. Their players are in pain. They are conditioned to take addictive opioids, with no real, alternate options for their pain management and overall health and wellness.

And pain is a big problem in the NFL, so big, that ESPN The Magazine’s November 14th issue is dedicated to talking about it.

In an essay for ESPN, former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson reveals that after years of addiction, struggle, depression, and unwanted side effects from painkillers, he chose weed over opioids. He candidly bullet points the NFL protocol after injury: Pills, shots, depression. Whatever it takes to keep you on the team, to keep playing, and to keep the money rolling in. During his final season, reeling from another injury, Jackson chose not to take the addictive pills, and opted to smoke weed instead. He said he “healed quickly and completely.” Shortly after, he was injured again, and fired from the Denver Broncos. 

But after a long battle with addiction, and now seven years out of the NFL, Jackson says he’s happy he can choose weed and not an orange bottle anymore.


The difference now is that I get to choose how to treat it. No one hands me an orange bottle. No one puts a needle in my back. Pills might kill the pain, but cannabis reframes it, allowing a speedier recovery and a more complete understanding of the injury. The propensity to kill the pain outright has helped create a dishonest relationship between a player's body and the game of football. I guess some would argue that the NFL's approach to pain management works. Look how popular the sport is, after all. Look at the revenue. But in the process, the NFL turns some of the strongest members of our species into pill-popping hospital patients.

Jackson is not alone in his coming out. Plenty of retired players have lead the way on the cannabis train, including former NFL players Eugene Monroe and Ricky Williams. Even more retirees, in the NBA too, say that weed is a way to non-addictive pain management. Still, the media and fans only seem to support a cannabis course of treatment once a player has left their no-drugs-allowed league. 

Recently retired NBA star Al Harrington spoke out about the rejuvenating effects of CBD therapy.

Harrington says he couldn't smoke to deal with injuries during his 16-season NBA career, but now, retired, says it's upgraded his life. 

“When you’re playing, you obviously can’t jump out there and say you’re doing all that type of stuff. But I’m living proof that you can manage pain without all the pharmaceuticals. You do have an alternative method to take care of yourself. And, to me, [it’s] a more natural way," he told The Undefeated. 

There’s still a fine line between cannabis normalization and real acceptance, especially for current league players. Maybe that’s because there’s a huge chunk of the country that’s still dabbling in all that War on Drugs propaganda and believing that weed is bad. The NFL (and most every other major league sport) rules reflect this harmful belief.

Weed is not a performance-enhancing drug, in the sense of steroids or amphetamines. Perhaps it shouldn't be policed as one either, especially with widespread legalization on the current political horizon.

Remember when top-five NFL draft pick, Laremy Tunsil went viral? His Twitter account was hacked and blasted out a video of him smoking weed. Tunsil was berated by media commentators and fans alike. He was tarred with a weedy stigma that proved no real cannabis acceptance is happening in sports. Still, Tunsil signed with the Miami Dolphins, and is playing now, sans weed. 

Despite how athletes decide to use weed; for fun or for pain, or simply for both, it's time we accept weed in sports as a positive, life-enhancing, non-addictive form of keeping the hard-pressed bodies intact to perform, night after night, for the pleasure of the great cheering crowds.