Last month, offensive tackle Eugene Monroe retired from the NFL at 29 years old, after seven seasons with the Jaguars and Ravens. Monroe’s retirement came just a few months after he declared his advocacy for medical marijuana as a way to combat the constant pain that comes with life as an NFL player. It also came about one month after the Ravens released him.
Monroe announced his advocacy in an essay for the Players’ Tribune. He led with an arresting image of “the T Train,” the euphemism used by many NFL players to describe a routine of standing in line before games to drop their pants to receive a shot in the ass of Toradol, a powerful anti-inflammatory painkiller that allows them to get through their workday.
Monroe has candidly called on the NFL and the NFLPA to remove marijuana from its list of banned substances; to fund medical marijuana research, especially with regard to brain trauma; and to stop passing out addictive opioids for pain relief. In his debut column this week for The Cannabist, Monroe acknowledged that he wakes up “each day with pains from head to toe,” but that “a few drops of THC-A tincture” helps him control his pain without the side effects of painkillers. Monroe has also donated $80,000 to fund medical cannabis research.
I spoke to Monroe by phone on Wednesday. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
In your first Players’ Tribune piece, you mentioned your history of using anti-inflammatory drugs to combat pain. How far back did all of that go?
“It’s something that I’ve dealt with my entire career, and I believe it goes back to my days in college. After my first season, I had a knee surgery during spring ball, my first padded practice, I got injured. From that point, I was pretty much on a steady dose of anti-inflammatory drugs, really up until I decided not to play any longer. From that injury, I carried a lot of swelling on my knee, and that shuts down some function, so it was making it difficult to perform, so I was taking anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce some of that swelling, so I could actually perform. And Toradol was part of that program. I’ve been administered Toradol on game day even in college, so it’s certainly not just an NFL issue. Toradol is prevalent in the NCAA as well.”
And once it wears off?
“It’s very interesting. It operates differently. Sometimes you can take it, and you won’t feel a thing for two days, and then the next day comes around, and you feel like you’ve been hit by a car—and you really have, because you played a football game. You’ve experienced that force multiple times. Toradol helps mask some of that pain; it’s an anti-inflammatory drug, but it also is a pain suppressor as well.”
Was there a singular moment when you began to question why this easy access to addictive pain meds was such an accepted practice for football teams?
“Well, when I was recovering from my last shoulder surgery in December, I started to consider all of the things that I needed to do to get healthy and get back on the field. I started to really understand just how bad things have been done prior, and I started to think that there has to be a healthier way to get through this.”
So was that the time your interest in medical marijuana picked up, or was that something you had been exploring before?
“I think at that point I started to really look for things that showed how cannabis is being used to manage pain for people. And it also came at a time where the information about how deadly the opioid crisis had become. It sort of just came at the same time. I was recovering from injury and looking for ways to get healthy. I was researching the benefits of medical marijuana, and also seeing that marijuana, in some cases, was being provided as a solution to the opioid problem. Through that, I also learned that patients who are on opioids to deal with pain were prescribed cannabis, and in some cases no longer needed the opioid drugs to manage their pain.”
Did you use medical marijuana as a player?
“No, I wasn’t using medical marijuana while I played. The league bans medical marijuana and punishes players for testing positive for it, so that’s not something I did while I played.”
A number of stories have been written about former players who use cannabinoids to deal with pain. And Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman did the most extensive evaluation of marijuana usage—whether for medicinal or even recreational purposes—among current players. From experience, do you have a sense of how many NFL players use marijuana for one reason or another?
“I can’t be certain; I’d be guessing if I gave a number or a percentage of people in the NFL who consume cannabis. But people do. It’s certainly a widely known fact. But it’s not just people in NFL locker rooms. People across society use cannabis from all walks of life, so I don’t think using it in the NFL, or any other sport, is any different.”
The league doesn’t test for recreational drugs during the season, unless a player has failed a test or been arrested on a drug charge. That means many players are free to smoke marijuana during the season. Antonio Cromartie once said—and later backtracked a bit—that a lot of players are going to smoke marijuana regardless of the NFL’s policy. In your experience, are a lot of NFL players using marijuana?
“People talked about using cannabis in the locker room; people talked about it a lot. In particular, more recently, as medical marijuana became more prevalent and the information expands, people talk about the potential for athletes using it, and also there are some guys who did go ahead and use it while they were playing. Former players have come out and talked about cannabis being the only reason that they were able to push through the pain. A lot of them had an adverse experience taking pharmaceutical drugs like opioids and other painkillers and anti-inflammatories that they became addicted to. And certainly, we see those guys now doing similar things to what I’m doing, standing up and promoting research to find out exactly why cannabis is creating so many benefits for people.”
It seems weird, doesn’t it? On one hand, you’ve got current and former players who can personally attest to the medical benefits of this—and also the casual use of marijuana to relax, which isn’t much different than settling down to have a drink, and which may be safer—and at the same time, you’ve got this stigma around marijuana, at least given how NFL handles its use.
“It’s not weird. I think I understand that there’s a stigma associated with cannabis. But I think that stigma is loosened and removed as people become educated that cannabis really has medical value. It has real applications, and I believe that application can also be included in sports.”
I’m interested in what you thought about Laremy Tunsil’s situation on draft night. Here’s a guy who was really the victim of someone’s cruel revenge, but who tumbled down the draft board because of the NFL’s general attitude toward marijuana.
“I think that situation is unfortunate. I think it also shows that we need to handle our policies differently. Certainly, it’s upsetting to see how our policies, and how ideology on cannabis—who knows what effect it really played on Laremy? Certainly, the perception is that it had a big role. It’s just unfortunate. But what I do know is that the NFL policies do need to change and be more progressive. And also the NFL needs to take a look at using medical cannabis to solve some of its problems.”
You mentioned during a recent Slate podcast that the union’s been receptive to your suggestions. Could you elaborate on that? How receptive has the union been?
“They’re receptive. And I’ve reached out to different members of the NFLPA and talked to them about my concerns for how we prescribe opioids and manage pain, and the possibility of using cannabis as an alternative. And they’re receptive to the idea, but particularly [in] looking at the research, and any data that can be provided to prove that this is a viable option, and also a safe option for athletes.”
Did you reach out to other player reps from other teams, or others within the union hierarchy?
“I was referring to [Nyaka NiiLampti], the director of wellness that the NFLPA just appointed. And also, DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFLPA, among a few other members.”
And DeMaurice was receptive?
“He’s interested in finding solutions to the problems we have. I think anyone who looks at a pain management program that’s based on prescribing opioids would recognize that it’s an issue at this point.”
Do you think as time goes on there will be a groundswell among players, that they will support this, and actively work to change the NFL’s policy?
“I can’t say whether players will come out in any number, although there has been another player who’s still active, [Titans linebacker] Derrick Morgan, who spoke about the need for the league to research cannabis and look at changing the policies that we have. I know there’s other athletes, too, who might not say anything at this point. But beyond athletes, there are policy-makers, and law enforcement officials, and physicians who also believe that the NFL’s policy should change.”
What do you think is the biggest hurdle to getting marijuana removed from the league’s list of banned substances, and even getting cannabis to be used as an accepted pain remedy?
“I don’t know what the specific hurdles are. I do know that there are problems to be addressed. And I intend to work people to find a sensible solution.”
You declared yourself an advocate for cannabis in May, when you were still on the Ravens’ roster. Did the Ravens ever say anything to you about that?
“No, I didn’t have any communication with the Ravens at all about my cannabis advocacy. No one from the organization reached out to talk to me.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if the Ravens decided to release me because I’m fighting for better health in the future. I don’t know.”
Do you wonder a little bit, though?
“No, I don’t. I think it’s insignificant. I’ll continue to fight for players who need healthier options. I was a player at one point, and if I were still playing, I’d be going through the season, going through training camp, and likely being prescribed different pharmaceutical drugs for injury, and also for some of the chronic things that I deal with that have accumulated over my career.”
Ex-Deadspinner Dom Cosentino is a reporter and writer. He’s on Twitter @domcosentino.