Why isn’t marijuana an option for professional football players?

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the New York Jets is hit by Isa Abdul-Quddus #24 of the Miami Dolphins during a NFL game at Hard Rock Stadium on November 6, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Ron Elkman | Sports Imagery | Getty Images
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the New York Jets is hit by Isa Abdul-Quddus #24 of the Miami Dolphins during a NFL game at Hard Rock Stadium on November 6, 2016 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

For the typical American going to work every day, the demands of your job probably don't include your daily dose of pain medications which are administered by your employer. Imagine being an employee at General Motors or Chase Bank and being forced to see your "company doctor" for all ailments and being prescribed addictive pain medications. Now what if that same job resulted in daily injuries, most of which would be considered debilitating for the general population?

Well this was the reality for me and countless other NFL players.

After my third football-related knee surgery, doctors diagnosed me with arthritis at 24 years old. I went on to have a total of nine surgeries as a result of football injuries and my current ailments include nerve damage, a needed knee replacement and a host of other physical diagnoses that I won't mention.

Oh yeah, if you saw me today, I'm a 37-year-old who feels great most of the time and I definitely appear to be in impeccable shape. I'll be the first to say that pro athletes don't need any sympathy, as we choose to play the sports we love and so we should bear the consequences that come along with it.

But the sad reality is, when you're a young aspiring athlete and your team doctor tells you that something will help you recover, most 22-year-olds don't break out the medical journals to understand the side effects. Actually, most people in general trust their medical professionals, especially when they are as elite as NFL medical staff, who usually carry the highest accolades in their field.

"If you ask me, pushing addictive pain meds on young pro athletes should be criminal."

The reality is that I worked with countless medical staff members who provided toxic pain-management drugs for me to control my injuries and quickly reduce my swelling in an effort to minimize recovery time. I even witnessed coaches publicly embarrass people in front of the team if you didn't get a shot or pop pills in order to play on Sunday, and even practice.

I took Vioxx (a pain killer that was later banned and removed from distribution over safety concerns) sometimes daily for years as prescribed by my team doctors and trainers as an anti-inflammatory pain reliever. When Vioxx was banned, we were prescribed Indocin and other pain medications and were given Toradol shots. (Both Indocin and Toradol remain on the market but with warnings about serious side effects including the risk of heart attack or stroke.)

I didn't realize until after my retirement that Vioxx had been banned and that Merck agreed to a $4.85 billion settlement over the drug. This Merck settlement realization caused me to review lawsuits and reports on the side effects of drugs like Vioxx, Indocin and Toradol, which I used before, during and after games as well as for general injury maintenance in order to practice. Unfortunately my revelations were too little, too late when I already had years of daily prescription use under my belt during my five-year NFL career. Fast forward, I'm nine years out of the league and I'm starting to pay the price. After finding a tumor in my thyroid and battling through a few other health concerns, I can't help but think back to at all those toxic meds and shots that I took for years.

It makes me wonder if I knew then what I know now: What would I have done if I had to choose between keeping my job and taking dangerous prescription drugs? That's the one question that haunts me.

When I see a normal, non-sports team-affiliated doctor these days, he/she always clearly explain the side effects or at least give me options to understand what medicines I'm putting into my body.

So I've grown to learn and appreciate how the medical world operates outside of the NFL. Keep in mind that, in the NFL, we didn't pick up a prescription from the local CVS, or have a doctor consultation to discuss side effects. We were asked if we could take the pain of a needle, we pulled down one side of our pants, took the shot of Toradol in the butt and hustled out to the field following the national anthem.

As strange as it sounds, most NFL players have never see a non-team-affiliated doctor until years after they are retired, which could be well into their 30s, just as I did. I mean, why would I? We had the best doctors in the world looking after us, right?

The hard truth about cannabis vs. painkillers

A man displays medical marijuana from a Massachusetts medical marijuana dispensary in Salem.
Jonathan Wiggs | The Boston Globe | Getty Images
A man displays medical marijuana from a Massachusetts medical marijuana dispensary in Salem.

If I had used marijuana, which shows promise in treating arthritis and bears minimal chance of organ damage, medicinally, the NFL would have fined me and I could have faced prosecution — a risk that an estimated 50 percent of NFL players run each season. (Marijuana is now legal in more than half of states for medicinal purposes but still banned under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with the players association.)

Not only are opioids addictive, they can kill you. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription opioids.

The facts relating to cannabinoids as an alternate are pretty clear: "You can't directly die from taking a cannabinoid, the way tens of thousands of people are directly dying from opioids each year in the U.S.," says Dr. Daniel Clauw, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan.

If you ask me, pushing addictive pain meds on young pro athletes should be criminal.

If you follow the NFL or you're into fantasy football, you've probably noticing a number of big named and role players getting suspended for four games and even entire seasons for "illegal substances." Just this year, the league has fined over 20 players a combined $10 million-plus for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. A majority of these cases involve marijuana, which seems hypocritical given the teams themselves are prescribing the players much more harmful and addictive medications than the ones that they are actually resulting in the fines.

There is no wonder why thousands of former players have joined together to pursue major class action lawsuits against the NFL. This has resulted in Drug Enforcement Agency and Justice Department investigations on how prescription drugs are distributed in NFL facilities. Prior to the start of this football season, Federal Judge William Haskell Alsup denied a motion by the NFL to dismiss the players' lawsuit, which will allow the discovery phase of this trial to begin. When you consider the potential magnitude of this lawsuit, and the current billion-dollar-plus concussion settlement that the league faces, there's no wonder why the typically politically correct owners are considering backtracking their harsh stance on cannabis.

With so many states now legalizing some form of legal marijuana use, the NFL and its conservative owners must face the inevitable. The players' association is beginning to push the league to reevaluate their logic.

"Certainly given some of the medical research out there, marijuana is going to be one of the substances we talk a look at," says Players' Union Executive George Atallah.

The league's response to the topic included a statement that it would be open to reconsidering its policy, but the league's medical experts haven't recommended any changes. Let's remember that these same medical experts denied that football caused concussions.

The perception of the league's treatment of players' health can't get any worst following the blockbuster hit movie "Concussion," starring Will Smith. So yes, a grown man can be paid to run full speed into other grown men every day and he has one choice: toxic pain killers and anti-inflammatory meds that have been proven to do massive damage to your liver and other organs. If you choose a natural route like marijuana, you are subject to millions in fines and will likely be suspended or terminated. Seems like a pretty bad deal to me.

This article is in no way a advocating for the misuse or abuse of marijuana as a recreational drug, but an attempt to voice the concerns of some of the great men who have lost their lives and left their families without loving fathers following horrible health issues — everything from head trauma to widespread painkiller abuse.

I'll be the first to admit that marijuana also comes with its own health concerns, which can include breathing problems, increased heart rates and some reports of links to schizophrenia. But when put side by side with harsh painkillers and toxic anti-inflammatory medications, there is no comparison.

Even beyond sports medicine, users report that marijuana has a host of health-related advantages. It has been known to help with pain, multiple sclerosis and Tourette's syndrome.

Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks' Coach Pete Carroll and numerous other key NFL names openly suggested the NFL should consider medicinal marijuana as a legitimate treatment for the injuries its players sustain.

It's well past time for the NFL to get with the program and consider marijuana as an option for the treatment of pain.

Commentary by Jack Brewer, a former NFL safety who played for the Vikings, Giants, Eagles and Cardinals. He is also the founder and CEO of the Brewer Group. He has a master's degree in sports management from the University of Minnesota. He serves as an ambassador for peace and sport for the United States Federation of Middle East Peace at the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter@JackBrewerBSI.

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