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How Marijuana Can Save the NFL

When it comes to concussions and cannabis, what does the science say? Pack a super bowl.
A super (bong) bowl, via Flickr/CC.

Former All-Pro defensive back Dave Duerson committed suicide in 2011 by shooting himself in the chest. Why choose such a painful and uncertain method of self annihilation? Because he wanted to end his own life, while preserving fully intact a vital piece of evidence.

“Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank,” he wrote in his suicide note, referring to a group of researchers working to discover whether successive concussions and other routine trauma encountered while playing football can lead to lasting neurological damage later in life.


Since retiring from the league in 1993, Duerson had served on a volunteer panel that evaluated disability claims from former players, including many suffering from such damage. So when symptoms of dementia first entered his own mind, he knew exactly what to expect as his condition deteriorated.

By the time he pulled the trigger, at age 51, the two-time Super Bowl champion had already suffered speech and memory impairment that, according to his ex-wife, “got worse as time went on.” His once successful food service company went into receivership. His home into foreclosure. His behavior grew increasingly erratic. Until, like Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, Duerson diagnosed his own precipitous mental decline as it happened, and resolved to make the world of science take notice while he still had a chance.

When Dr. Ann McKee, director of neuropathology at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Bedford, Massachusetts posthumously examined Duerson's brain, she discovered a “classic pathology of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and no evidence of any other disease.” McKee has since produced compelling evidence linking the incredibly high rate of CTE among retired football players to repeated head trauma endured in the course of the game. And not just among professional athletes earning millions of dollars. McKee estimates that the average high school football player suffers 900 to 1,500 sub-concussive incidents per season, blows to the head that don't produce immediate symptoms, yet still may cause serious damage.


"I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football," President Obama, who has followed the issue closely, told the New Republic in an interview published last year. "And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much."

Hail Mary Jane

In August, the NFL reached a settlement with more than 4,500 former players, who'd sued the league for having “knowingly concealed a link between traumatic brain injury and professional football,” according to a recent FRONTLINE investigation. The NFL agreed to pay out $765 million to those diagnosed with head trauma-related illness, but then, just last week, a judge denied preliminary approval for that settlement, based on her concern that the money allotted wouldn't be sufficient to cover the cost of caring for all those afflicted.

And so the issue rears its ugly head once again, as the NFL—and America—prepares for a truly historic Super Bowl. One featuring two teams from cities with legal cannabis. Not that anyone's calling marijuana a performance enhancing drug just yet, though it is worth noting that since Colorado and Washington officially voted to legalize, the Broncos and Seahawks boast a combined 26-1 record when playing at home.


Even notoriously straight-laced NFL commissioner Roger Godell now takes the idea of active players smoking pot seriously. In a recent interview at the 92nd Street Y, he envisioned a time when those in states with legal marijuana could use it in accordance with league rules. “I don’t know what’s going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries,” he said, “but we will continue to support the evolution of medicine.”

So when it comes to concussions and cannabis, what does the science say?

Well, according to a Washington Post editorial published earlier this month, entitled The NFL Should Let Its Players Smoke Pot, “the league should be especially interested in marijuana’s potential to diminish the long-term effects of brain injuries.” Per the Post:

As it turns out, recent studies are starting to contradict the notion that marijuana kills brain cells. Last year, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel gave low doses of THC, one of marijuana’s primary cannabinoids, to mice either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. They found that THC produced heightened amounts of chemicals in the brain that actually protected cells. Weeks later, the mice performed better on learning and memory tests, compared with a control group. The researchers concluded that THC could prevent long-term damage associated with brain injuries. Though preliminary, this is just one of many promising studies exploring marijuana’s benefits for the brain.


In his book Marijuana Gateway to Health: How Cannabis Protects Us from Cancer and Alzheimer's Disease, author and researcher Clint Werner notes that the federal government holds US Patent 6630507, titled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants,” before concluding that the herb should be “as common in an NFL locker room as icepacks.”

And not just to prevent dementia. Marijuana is also a remarkably safe, effective pain reliever, with none of the dangerous side effects of commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals. Meanwhile, according to a study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, retired NFL players misuse prescription painkillers at a rate more than four times higher than the general population.

“[NFL] players have a legitimate and substantial claim to use medical marijuana," former Broncos receiver Nate Jackson recently told the Denver Post. "[Instead] teams pass out opioid painkillers, which are highly addictive. They are a derivative of the poppy plant—so it ish basically pharmaceutical heroin.”

Tomorrow, HBO Real Sports will open its new season with a report on marijuana use in the NFL, in which several former players discuss their use of cannabis to cope with pain.

“It's not like there's the smoker's corner, where everyone goes and talks about what strain they smoked last night,” former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe tells host Andrea Kremer. “In the locker room, when guys talked about it, it wasn't, 'I'm gonna go get blazed and tear up the town.' It was more like, 'Yeah, I smoked a bit and then passed out on the couch. Because I felt like crap after practice.'”


Bud Wiser

After defeating the San Diego Chargers in the second round of this year's playoffs, Broncos quarterback and 2013 league MVP Peyton Manning told reporters, “What's weighing on my mind, right now, is how soon I can put a Bud Light in my mouth after this win. That's priority number one.”

From tailgating in the parking lot to dousing the winning locker room in champagne, booze is a huge part of the culture surrounding professional sports. So naturally an on-message media-coached brand-name athlete like Manning made sure to mention the league's official beer in his post-game joshing. Perhaps it was even a paid product placement. After all, Anheuser-Busch reportedly ponied up more than $1 billion for their official beer status.

Now imagine the reaction if—instead of drinking Bud Light—he'd made lighting up some legal Colorado bud his highest priority?

“NFL players can go out, get completely drunk, and face no punishment from the league,” according to Mason Tvert. Communications Director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “But if a player gets caught using marijuana, they could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, forced to sit out games and deemed a troublemaker.”

Pro-pot billbaords like this one have been cropping up around Mile High Stadium in Denver. Image courtesy Marijuana Policy Project.

To expose the incredible hypocrisy of the NFL endlessly profiting off alcohol—including sales at the stadium, and advertisements during the game—while denying players a safer alternative, Tvert's group took out a billboard at the beginning of this season, just a block from Mile High Stadium in Denver, imploring the NFL—and by extension America—to stop “driving players to drink.” Which sounds like nothing more than a humorous publicity stunt from a bunch of pot legalizers, until you realize that since 2007, more than 100 active NFL players have been arrested for drinking and driving, not to mention countless others cited for public intoxication, assault, and other anti-social behavior fueled by alcohol.

Something to keep in mind at this year's Super Bowl party, when some dumbass with a gallon of whisky on his breath makes a crack about how the fans in Denver and Seattle must be too stoned to even follow the game.