Last night's episode of Weediquette looked at how NFL players use marijuana to potentially treat and prevent CTE-related injuries. Weediquette host Krishna Andavolu talked to us about his experience making the episode, as well as how it might have changed his relationship to one of America's favorite pastimes. Read an edited and condensed version of his thoughts below.
At first blush, football and weed seem culturally antithetical—war enacted on a playing field vs. "Peace and love, let's smoke a joint." But anecdotally speaking, many NFL players smoke pot. It's an open secret that everyone knows about. It's banned by the NFL, but the league only tests before the season begins, which means that if you piss clean that one time, you can smoke weed after the game and after practice.
In Wednesday's episode, we looked into how marijuana could potentially act as a preventative treatment for CTE, a neurodegenerative brain disease caused by repeated collisions to the head. Pot is empirically known as a neuroprotectant, and the way that we see it help people who suffer from epilepsy suggests that it can help the neurons actually protect themselves.
NFL player Eugene Monroe, who at the time of filming played for the Baltimore Ravens, got in touch with me on Twitter. He was the only current NFL player who was advocating openly for legal pot as a medicine, so his journey becomes our journey, in a sense. He loves football—loves playing it, loves hitting people, loves the competition, loves the spotlight. He's been playing since he was 11, but he knows that the toll he's taking on his head and his brain might mean that his life could be ruined years down the line.
We also visit Brian Schaefering, a defensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns who Eugene played against for years and is in a terrible situation. CTE is beginning to manifest for him—he has debilitating symptoms like memory loss, cognitive impairment, and problems with impulse control—and you see what his family is going through. Impulse control is a big issue with CTE, because the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulse, is what gets damaged the most playing football. And these are huge dudes. If their impulses are out of control, it can be scary.
It's not a problem only affecting players on the professional level, either. For every Eugene Monroe and Brian Schaefering, there are hundreds of kids who played through high school and college and didn't make it into the pros subjecting themselves to the same kinds of injuries.
The end of football's reign as America's sport of choice is in the tea leaves. Boxing was once more beloved by Americans than football. Today, we look at boxing as a brutal sport, one that leaves men battered and beaten physically—and mentally—long before their time. For decades, fewer and fewer kids have picked up boxing gloves as an after-school activity, and the same thing is beginning to happen in football. The kids of the players I spoke to had seen what the sport had done to their fathers and told me they didn't want to end up like that. They were planning to go into another line of work.
It's in the NFL's own interest to be at the forefront of testing weed as neuroprotectors. Anything that can be done to better protect players and make the sport safer, thereby encouraging a younger generation to get involved, will only serve to protect their bottom line. So why does the league categorically deny that pot could have any preventative or helpful effects?
We talked to ESPN columnist Pablo Torre who told us simply that weed is still scary to middle America. The NFL makes billions of dollars selling its product to middle America, and it doesn't want to jeopardize that business model. Tracing marijuana's move to the mainstream, you see it intersect with cultures that wouldn't otherwise consider it. This is a moment where, if the NFL would step up and test pot for its potential benefit as a neuroprotectant, it could have all kinds of ripple effects in terms of how we understand the plant.
Football has always been an effective vehicle for many American values—grit, determination, toughness, winning. That stuff is who we are as a country, and it's traditionally been passed down from father to son. That kind of familial connection is very important to sports, and to football specifically. My kid learned how to say "Touchdown!" as one of his first few words just because football was always on TV. But we also want to make sure that our kids have a good future, and being honest about considering the previously unconsidered is a value that I want my child to have. Unfortunately, NFL owners seem to lack that value. They're entrenched in a conservative position where the bottom line of their business precludes a tiny level of curiosity that could one day lead to who knows what.
We don't often say to billion-dollar corporations, "Act with a conscience." So what happens then? Do we tune in if we think that this is somehow immoral or broken? Do we choose to buy jerseys, or go to games, or play fantasy football, or have our impressions become ad dollars and revenue for sports organizations? I don't know the answer to that question. Even after reporting through this story and seeing how it affects people and the intransigence of the NFL, I still think I might want to watch, and that ultimately is the hard part about being a person in this world—you have to confront the repercussions of your choices, even when they're between the health of a top pinnacle athlete and pushing a button to turn on a TV.