Prior to the NFL season opening; every player got a letter from Jake Plummer and Eugene Monroe (retired players). The retired players; working alongside academic researchers at John Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania, were looking for data. The researchers inquired as to how players coped with the aches, pains and serious injuries that are part of the NFL life. Do they cope by using team-provided pharmaceuticals, prescription opiates, alcohol, therapeutic massage or cannabis; the substance Plummer and Monroe both agree upon as a cure for football-related injuries to the brain and body.
Players willing to participate would complete a survey every week which would track injuries, recovery time and what method was utilized to assist in recovery. Participants would remain anonymous and the data collected could be utilized to help shape the future of NFL drug policy. Shortly after; according to several sources, players got another letter. This letter was from the NFL Players Association. Despite the legal cover that protects test subjects’ anonymity (certificates of confidentiality) which accompanied the researchers’ survey; anyone who participated, the NFLPA warned, can have their names as well as self-admitted drug use publicly revealed, if for any reason the certificates were ever challenged in court.
It is not clear under what legal basis the NFL or anyone else could de-anonymize study results. Such court challenges rarely, if ever, happen. However; the thought of the possibility was sufficient to stop the entire project. A couple players had already agreed, Plummer told me at the time, but changed their mind after the union sent the letter. No other players agreed to participate. A union’s purpose is to advocate for its players’ welfare; physically, financially and any other way required. The NFLPA takes pride in the effort it will expend in doing so.
The NFL has the stiffest guidelines related to weed, compared to other American pro sports. It has ended many careers and is now asking at least one player to choose between his career or treating a potentially fatal disease. The marijuana ban is currently hurting players for no good reason; and to make matters worse, the NFLPA is doing nothing about it. On Nov. 9, precisely the day after recreational marijuana was legalized in eight states where 65 million Americans live; the union announced it was organizing a “committee” to look into “pain management.” The NFLPA will “study” marijuana as well as other drugs and alternative treatments such as acupuncture and massage; in order to help the union determine what may best help players relieve pain. League rules do not permit the use of “illegal drugs,” including cannabis. This rule will continue at least until the expiration of the NFL’s labor agreement in 2020.
“We are actively looking at the issue of pain management of our players,” NFLPA spokesman George Atallah stated to the Washington Post. “And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on.”
The first time the union mentioned its pain committee was in a September Rolling Stone article. Following marijuana’s historic support at the polls, was when the NFLPA really promoted its work on the issue. However, the union never discussed details of its study. Who is running the study, what is being studied and how. Who is participating in the study and why did the NFLPA stop the Hopkins and Penn study. The union never contacted the researchers working with Monroe and Plummer; whose work, if the NFLPA did not undermine it before it began, would have provided useful data for the committee.
“I have not heard directly from the NFLPA about this and thus have no idea what they mean by the statement that they are ‘actively studying’ this,” Johns Hopkins University associate professor Ryan Vandrey, one of the academics working with Monroe and Plummer, told me last month. “I wish I knew more, but have not been in touch with them for a few months now.”
As per Atallah of the NFLPA; they are still assembling the committee. Monroe and Derrick Morgan (Titans linebacker which is the only active NFL player to openly advocate for cannabis), are members, and it will include medical researchers. It may examine existing research or it may conduct its own. “We don’t know yet,” Atallah said. Nor is there a clear deadline for delivering findings or any sense of urgency according to the NFLPA. “We hope to get this thing off the ground very soon,” Atallah said.
When asked why the NFLPA could not comply with the Hopkins study— “There wasn’t a sufficient initial collaboration with us to address those confidentiality concerns,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that work they would have done wasn’t going to be valuable, it just means that issue was a hurdle we couldn’t get over.”
The slow progress on this research is a huge concern. There is pain pill abuse and there are numbing agents that put players at risk of greater structural damage. There is also at least one NFL player and NFLPA member that desperately needs medical cannabis right now.