Originally published in Bloomberg View.
"Me, personally, I didn't like painkillers," says Nate Jackson, a former tight end for the Denver Broncos. "I just medicated on my own. Most players do that."
Football is a violent game. If you play football, you will experience pain. If you experience pain, you will seek ways to alleviate it.
So, what are your options? Well, you can get painkillers from your team's medical staff, though some are circumspect about just handing them out. And, anyway, a lot of players don't like the way prescription painkillers make them feel — queasy, sluggish, out of it. They prefer to self-medicate. They prefer to smoke pot.
Jackson didn't really start self-medicating with marijuana until he got to the National Football League. He didn't need to. "In college, my body felt great. I would hurt for a day after the game but the pain wasn't that bad," he told me. "In the NFL, these guys are grown men. Just the normal occupational reality is slamming yourself into other humans at high speed, so your body hurts. It hurts and it's misaligned."
You can read all about Jackson's six seasons in the NFL in his fantastic new memoir, Slow Getting Up. Jackson adores football, but he is also fully aware of the sport's inherent violence and destruction—"Pads and helmets crack, creating a frightening symphony of future early onset dementia," he writes—and his book is about the personal compromises you have to make to love a game that hates you back.
Tucked in between Jackson's stories of life on the NFL margins is this miniature op-ed article:
The NFL should remove marijuana from their banned substances list. Don't tell anyone about it: just stop testing for it.
Pain is a big problem in the NFL. Pain management is necessary.
Weed is the least harmful and least addictive of the painkillers players use to cope with the violent demands of the game.
However you feel about marijuana, players bodies belong to themselves. They're the ones getting pounded week in and week out, doing permanent damage to themselves for our entertainment. (Also, yes, their enrichment, though it's worth remembering that the average NFL career lasts three years. Meanwhile, players' health insurance continues for five years after their careers end, at which point they're on their own, trying to find a carrier willing to insure someone who crashed into 300-pound men at full speed for a living.) "It should be up to guys how they manage their lives off the field, especially with something as innocuous as marijuana," says Jackson.
Of course, the NFL is about as likely to legalize marijuana—even in states where it's already legal—as it is to hang flags from players' waists. But before we completely dismiss Jackson's proposal as a fully baked delusion, keep in mind that in the coming years millions of dollars will be pouring into research into both the medicinal benefits of marijuana and the question of how to make football less dangerous. Already, there are studies that have shown that, in addition to numbing pain, pot might also help protect the brain from injury. An ingredient in marijuana apparently may neutralize the neurotransmitters that are released after severe head injuries and that cause cell degradation.
This is from a 2002 study in a scientific journal called Trends in Molecular Medicine:
Cannabinoid receptor agonists inhibit glutamatergic synaptic transmission and reduce the production of tumour necrosis factor- and reactive oxygen intermediates, which are factors in causing neuronal damage. The formation of the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol is strongly enhanced after brain injury, and there is evidence that these compounds reduce the secondary damage incurred. Some plant and synthetic cannabinoids, which do not bind to the cannabinoid receptors, have also been shown to be neuroprotective, possibly through their direct effect on the excitatory glutamate system and/or as antioxidants.
Get it? Neither do I, really. I am sure about one thing, though: Playing professional football is a lot more hazardous to your health than smoking marijuana. In a story for the website Deadspin, Jackson described the aftermath of a near-decapitation at the hands of linebacker Willie McGinest:
I approached our team doctor as the flight closed in on Denver and asked him if he could give me something for the pain. He said the best he could do was one Vicodin and one muscle relaxer. "Really, Doc? That's it? You're gonna make me hit the streets for this one?"
"Sorry, Nate," he said with a chuckle, not knowing if I was kidding, and he handed me two stupid pills. Since it was a Thursday, we had three extra days of recovery time before the next game. I lay in bed for all three of them, unable to move. The Vicodin and muscle relaxer didn't make it off the plane so I did what I said I would do. I hit the streets—weed, a few pills, nothing heavy.
Football is a violent game. If you play football, you will experience pain. If you experience pain, you will seek ways to alleviate it. Should the NFL really get to decide how?
Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.