Illustration by Jim Cooke

Before the NFL season started, every active player received a letter from retired players Jake Plummer and Eugene Monroe. The pair was working with academic researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania, the letter explained, and they were looking for data.

The researchers wanted to know how players coped with a season’s worth of the aches, pains, and serious injuries that are the stock-in-trade of NFL life, whether it was team-provided pharmaceuticals, prescription opiates, booze, therapeutic massage—or marijuana, the substance both Plummer and Monroe swear by as a tonic for football-related trauma to brains and bodies.

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Players who agreed to participate would fill out a weekly survey that tracked injuries, recovery time, and what was used to help recover. Participants would remain anonymous, but knowing what “Player X”—or a whole team’s worth of players—was doing to stay on the field could be used to help shape the future of NFL drug policy.

Not long afterward, according to several sources, players received another letter, this one from the NFL Players Association. Despite the certificates of confidentiality that accompanied the researchers’ survey—typical legal cover that protects test subjects’ anonymity—anyone who participated, the NFLPA warned, might have their names and self-admitted drug use publicly revealed, if the certificates were ever challenged in court.

Such court challenges rarely, if ever, happen and it is unclear upon what legal basis the NFL or anybody else could even claim to have a right to de-anonymized study results. But the chilling effect was enough to halt the entire project. A few players had already signed up, Plummer told me at the time, but dropped out after the union got involved, and no other players decided to participate.

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The union’s purpose is to advocate for its players’ welfare—physical, financial, and otherwise—and the NFLPA prides itself on the uncommon effort it will expend to do so.

The NFL has the most draconian ban on marijuana in American pro sports, ruining several careers and now forcing at least one player to choose between his livelihood and treating a potentially fatal disease. The ban is actively hurting players without any appreciable gain, and the only thing worse is that the NFLPA has done nothing but play along.

On Nov. 9, exactly one day after recreational marijuana became legal in eight states where 65 million Americans live—including several hundred of the 1,696 NFLPA members on NFL rosters—the NFLPA made an announcement. With medical marijuana also legal for approximately half of the league’s players, the union announced it was organizing a “committee” to look into “pain management.” The NFLPA will “study” marijuana, as well as other drugs and alternative treatments like acupuncture and massage, in order for the union to ascertain what might best help its players relieve pain. League rules forbid the use of “illegal drugs,” including marijuana, a ban which will last at least until the NFL’s labor agreement expires in 2020.

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“We are actively looking at the issue of pain management of our players,” NFLPA spokesman George Atallah told the Washington Post. “And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on.”

The union actually first made mention of its pain committee in a September Rolling Stone article, but it wasn’t until after marijuana’s historic showing at the polls that the NFLPA really promoted its work on the issue. What the union didn’t discuss were details of its study—who is running it, what is being studied and how, who is participating, and why the NFLPA torpedoed the Hopkins and Penn study. The union also hasn’t reached out to the researchers working with Monroe and Plummer, whose work, if the NFLPA hadn’t undermined it before it could begin, would have provided usable data for the committee.

“I have not heard directly from the NFLPA about this and thus have no idea what they mean by the statement that they are ‘actively studying’ this,” Johns Hopkins University associate professor Ryan Vandrey, one of the academics working with Monroe and Plummer, told me last month. “I wish I knew more, but have not been in touch with them for a few months now.”

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The NFLPA is still assembling the committee, Atallah told me. Both Monroe and Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, the only active NFL player to openly advocate for cannabis, are members, and it will include medical researchers. It might examine existing research, or it might conduct its own. “We don’t know yet,” Atallah said. Nor is there a clear deadline for delivering findings—or, at least from the NFLPA’s standpoint, any sense of urgency. “We hope to get this thing off the ground very soon,” Atallah said.

As for why the NFLPA couldn’t abide by the Hopkins study? “There wasn’t a sufficient initial collaboration with us to address those confidentiality concerns,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that work they would have done wasn’t going to be valuable, it just means that issue was a hurdle we couldn’t get over.”

The slow and potentially self-sabotaging progress on this research isn’t just an abstract concern. There is pain pill abuse, and there are numbing agents that put players at risk of greater structural damage, and there’s at least one NFL player, and NFLPA member, that desperately needs medical marijuana right now.

Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson has Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal condition that can cause bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps so intense sufferers compare it to having their guts consumed by “flesh-eating bacteria,” and accompanying body pain that can leave them unable to walk. Complications from Crohn’s can kill, and there is no known cure, only treatment. As it happens, cannabis appears to be one of the most effective treatments; some sufferers say smoking or ingesting marijuana allows them to live a more-or-less normal life.

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New York State, where Henderson plays his home games, allows for medical marijuana, but under some of the stricter restrictions in the country. It cannot be consumed in smokeable form, and is only allowed for people with some of the worst, most intractable health issues—including Crohn’s. So, Henderson said, he used marijuana. In September the NFL suspended him four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, and in November a further 10 games. If he tests positive again, he faces a permanent ban.

At 24 years old, Henderson faces a choice. He can keep using cannabis in order to reduce his symptoms, but likely lose his career; or he can quit the stuff, suffer enormous pain, and quite possibly be too unwell to play football anyway.

Henderson does have a third option, which is to sue the NFL and argue for a medical necessity exception to the league’s blanket ban on weed. The CBA bans “illegal” drugs, and if Henderson is using cannabis under New York state’s medical marijuana program, he could do so legally, though it remains illegal federally. He may also be able to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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In any case, Henderson needs advice, and representation, and support. So where has his union been? The NFLPA has yet to say anything publicly about the situation, in Henderson’s defense or otherwise.

“Seantrel hasn’t cleared us to talk about that case,” Atallah told me. “If Seantrel wants us to talk about his case, we’d be happy to do that.”

There’s nothing stopping from the NFLPA from speaking broadly about the undeniable flaws in the league’s marijuana policy, nor advocating to change it. The union has watched the NFL’s marijuana policies derail the careers of several of its members, and threaten the careers of others. Medical marijuana advocacy appears to be the reason Eugene Monroe was released from the Baltimore Ravens, and effectively drummed out of the league at the age of 29.

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This is all happening, mind you, because the NFLPA agreed to the toughest marijuana-testing policy in pro sports during CBA negotiations in 2006, which included increasingly lengthy suspensions for players with subsequent positive tests. The policy is “clearly bad,” one agent said, “and you could argue that it’s become bad faster than they thought.” But the policy was untouched during the most recent CBA negotiations in 2011—when the NFLPA “got taken to the woodshed” by league owners, as one agent said.

The NFLPA and the league finally got around to updating that policy in 2014, when they raised the positive-test threshold from a minuscule 15 ng/ml, the standard used by the U.S. military, to 35 ng/ml. (The threshold for Olympic athletes and MMA fighters is 150 ng/ml. Major League Baseball doesn’t even test for marijuana, and the NHL doesn’t discipline players who do.) The NFL’s lengthy suspensions remain.

And it is the NFLPA that used questionable legalese to scare its members out of participating in a potentially useful study about how they manage pain, and then proposed, in the vaguest possible terms, to do its own such study, using the tectonic shift in Americans’ attitudes towards marijuana as cover. Just weeks later, the NFLPA sat on its hands as yet another one of its members was hung out to dry for using weed—in this case, by all indications, merely in order to live a normal life.

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When the NFLPA made news for its pain-management committee last month, though, Jake Plummer didn’t feel double-crossed. He didn’t have anything bad to say about the union—instead, he was hopeful.

“I was encouraged,” he told me from his home in Colorado. “They didn’t say they were going to investigate or research the efficacy of cannabis, but at least they’re understanding there’s a need to address post-career pain—which I think is a start.”

As soon as I mentioned Henderson, however, the mood soured.

“Part of his game checks go to pay the NFLPA’s salary,” Plummer said. “The NFLPA, from what I understand them to be, is supposed to represent the best interests of players, current and former. Right now, I don’t know what they’re doing for him.

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“He has a disease that is obviously helped by using cannabis. And now he can’t play. I think it’s bullshit. It sucks. He was proactive and went ahead of the curve, and now he’s being punished.”

NFL players smoke weed. They always have, and with the country’s laws finally changing to reflect the attitude of the majority of Americans who think marijuana should be legal, they always will. Just how many active NFL players use cannabis is unknown, thanks in part to the thwarting of attempts to survey players on pain management, but if their consumption mirrors Americans’, it’s at least in the hundreds.

“The players want to smoke,” one agent said. “These guys smoke.”

On some teams, as many as half the players on the roster are weed-smokers, Ricky Williams once told me. Williams was the NFL’s pot poster child, a status he earned for smoking to deal with a coach he didn’t like and a cracked rib he liked even less. “Inside the team, guys are open about it because it’s a not a big deal,” Williams said. “Most coaches, unless you’re in the [drug-testing] program, they don’t care.”

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In Canada, where cannabis is decriminalized and apparently nobody cares, CFL players smoke on the way to practice. Did Williams? Once, and “I played great,” he said.

The NFLPA makes its priorities clear by when and how and whether it chooses to push back against the NFL. It went to great lengths, for instance, to help Tom Brady, spending at least $3.5 million of its dues-payers’ dollars, while dragging its feet on getting retired players something as simple as health insurance.

“That money could have gone to ensure health insurance for every single former player still alive,” Plummer told me. There is a feeling, he said, that the NFLPA is, “Just an entity that’s there that doesn’t go bat for the players. But they sure went to bat for Tom Brady.”

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The NFLPA’s noises about a pain-management committee are curious. Marketing, licensing, and lawyering are the union’s strong suits, not medical research, and if it’s pairing with a research institution, couldn’t it have accomplished the same thing by encouraging its members to participate in the Hopkins and Penn study?

Even assuming an effective data-gathering program, we don’t know how successful the NFLPA will be in convincing the NFL to accede to the reality of its players using marijuana, either now or during the next CBA negotiations—or if the union will even bother trying. At least publicly, the NFLPA has not made marijuana a priority. When it comes to fighting for the right to use legal medicine that could prolong their careers and better their lives, NFL players are on their own.


Chris Roberts is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. You can find him on Twitter at @cbloggy.