Sports like football require — literally — head-to-head contact almost constantly. Injuries and concussions are common, even to be expected. Young athletes may end a game with life-changing injuries that require a combination of physical therapy and painkillers for years. As cannabis has entered the mainstream as an effective and safe medicine for those suffering from chronic pain, allowing professional athletes to use medicinal cannabis to treat their ailments seems like a logical option. There’s only one catch, however — cannabis is still federally considered a Schedule 1 substance and is banned in professional sports, leaving athletes to choose between crippling their career and a cocktail of prescription drugs.
In an 2014 interview with the Washington Post, former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita describes a nearly soda can-sized pill bottle he was given to treat a knee injury. He estimates the bottle contained 125 to 150 Percocet (a potent oxycodone-derived painkiller) pills. The same article interviews former offensive lineman Rex Hadnot, who was prescribed Toradol, an anti-inflammatory drug. The drug is delivered with a shot, and should not be taken for longer than five days, yet Hadnot was given Toradol in either a shot or a pill once per week for nine years.
“Meds were passed out on airplanes, Hadnot said, and even on a bus in Cleveland on a short road trip to Pittsburgh,” said the article.
These cases are only two among many — several athletes came forward describing similar situations, resulting in a class-action lawsuit in 2015. One things is clear, though: the pressure to perform often outweighs the well-being of some of our nation’s best players.
Enter Ricky Williams. Williams is a former running back, who played with the NFL for twelve years. His career came to a sudden halt in 2004, when he tested positive for marijuana during a routine drug test. Instead of paying a fine and facing repercussions, he retired. At the time, he thought his image was ruined — and in a way, it was. The college prodigy he was once known as was gone; he couldn’t escape the “stoner” label.
Williams has admitted he suffers from psychological issues including social anxiety and borderline personality disorder. He tried to avoid the side-effects of many pharmaceuticals he was prescribed, and cannabis offered the relief he was seeking. After being alienated from the limelight he once basked in, Williams turned to other interests, such as holistic health. He began studying Ayurveda and has since become a vocal proponent of legalization.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Williams comments, “We have to teach these guys that everything’s connected: the body and the mind, all the trauma. With all the damage we’ve suffered, we’re one group of people with an amazing capacity to heal. We just need the tools.”
For Williams, and for many other athletes, these tools for healing may include cannabis. Chronic pain is a qualifying condition for medical cannabis, which football players are more than likely experiencing. The discussion about pain and how we treat it needs to change: taking enormous doses of addictive and opioids with questionable side effects is no longer the only option.
In early 2016, Williams announced he would be co-founding the country’s first cannabis -themed gym, fittingly called Power Plant Fitness. There, cannabis therapy would be welcomed. A collection of edibles and topicals are also offered to supplement the workout. There will also be massage therapists and acupuncturists on site. It is only a matter of time before cannabis is normalized as a medicine. Cannabis gyms, like Williams,’ might become as normal as pharmacies.