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The NFL & CBD: Cannabis as Sports Medicine

Every Sunday in the fall season, millions tune in as violence voyeurs for NFL football. If it involves head-bashing, blood and beatdowns, there's a good chance for high ratings. But as the seasons go by, your favorite gridiron stars are paying a price unseen. Chronic Traumatic Encephalophathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease commonly found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

So why doesn’t the NFL go after this potential therapy if it could improve and protect player health?

NFL on CBD Cannabis as sports medicine over gray background of Football game and official

January 02, 2018

CTE has captured public attention in recent years by a series of suicides of former pros, most notably Hall of Famer Junior Seau. The conversation grew following the release of the 2015 film Concussion, which stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu – the forensic pathologist who took on the NFL after he discovered a link between CTE and football players' brains in 2002. As states across the nation have steadily loosened regulations on cannabis laws, retired athletes like Eugene Monroe, Ricky Williams and Jake Plummer are beginning to question the standards and practices of everything we know about sports medicine.

Like a growing number of Americans, they have been following reports that cannabidiol (CBD) could be just what doctor ordered. Soon, the NFL and CBD could become more than just strange bedfellows.

CBD is a cannabis-derived compound that has no psychoactive properties, meaning it does not intoxicate users. Instead, some studies and anecdotal evidence have discovered that CBD helps people cope with issues such as inflammation, neuropathic pain, seizures, arthritis and even mental conditions like anxiety, depression and dementia.

As Monroe told the Washington Post: “My life is literally at risk here,” he said. “...I’ve got children, man, and I worry for my future. I’ve already had a few concussions. It’s time for us to grow up, to move past ‘Reefer Madness,’ to understand this as real medicine.”

CBD has gained national recognition in the media, as it’s been proven to effectively treat a neurological disorder known as Dravet Syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy which affects thousands of children in the U.S. Now some in the NFL want to know what the compound can do as a post-concussion therapy as well as a safer alternative to opioids for pain management. It’s long been understood that cannabis eases pain, from the early medicinal “cure-all” tonics prior to prohibition in America, to the chemo and AIDS patients of the ‘90s.

Currently in the U.S., the number of medical marijuana patients is nearly 1.5 million – this certainly speaks to at least some sort of therapeutic value. “Do we have the silver bullet? Do we have the remedy? I don’t know,” Plummer told the Denver Post. “I sure would like to find out.”

Although marijuana and its components remain as Schedule I substances under federal narcotics law, there is hope in the immediate future for it's more approachable cousin: industrial hemp. Mostly regarded for its high quality fiber and its seeds for food, hemp is a lesser known medicinal resource. Hemp contains little to no THC – the marijuana compound that makes you high.

Unlike marijuana, hemp-derived CBD is legal. The US Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges the potential of such cannabinoid compounds as medicine: Just look to the department's official patent no. 6630507, which details the wide-ranging medical potential for these substances.

Even large and influential groups like the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association support a broader push for cannabinoid research. Knowing this, a small group of former pros (and an active one) have launched a campaign called “When the Bright Lights Fade” to educate outsiders on whole plant therapy. The effort is in collaboration with the Colorado non-profit Realm of Caring.

In an open letter addressed to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Harvard medical professor Dr. Lester Grinspoon outlines the growing need for the serious consideration of cannabis in sports: “Over the last two decades interest, knowledge and use of marijuana as a medicine has grown exponentially. People who are knowledgeable about cannabinopathic medicine believe that marijuana is neuroprotective. This understanding has grown from both clinical experience and animal research. It is also well known that it is remarkably free of toxicity.”

So why doesn’t the NFL go after this potential therapy if it could improve and protect player health? In a statement, the NFL said its “top priority is the health and safety of our players” but that “medical experts have not recommended making a change or revisiting our collectively-bargained policy and approach related to marijuana.”

Changes to the league’s drug policy require reforms to the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. The NFLPA recently formed a committee to study alternative forms of pain management, which should have some propositions ready prior to next season. But for now, no one knows exactly if or when CBD might breakthrough the politics of pro sports as a treatment option.  

+ Want more information on the NFL and CBD? Visit Realm of Caring to learn more.

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