NFL to Study the Incorporation of Cannabis, CBD on Pain Management

Society has long disapproved of the use of cannabis and CBD – it has been criminalized and looked down upon by many, despite the various benefits it has posed. Recently, however, cannabis and CBD products have been viewed more positively and are slowly becoming more accepted throughout the United States. There are many potential medical benefits to using these products, specifically in treating epilepsy and pain management. Today, the use of recreational marijuana has been legalized in 18 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam and the use of medical marijuana has been approved in 37 states, Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As North America becomes more accepting of the substance, the four major sports leagues have begun to reconsider their own marijuana policies, with the National Football League recently announcing that it has awarded $1 million in research funding to study the effects of cannabinoids on pain management and neuroprotection from concussion in elite football players. This research will be taking place at the University of California San Diego and University of Regina. 

The push to research this topic began in 2020 when the NFL-NFLPA Pain Management Committee (PMC) began looking into CBD among other alternatives to opioids in pain management of players. In June 2021, the PMC began focusing on identifying potential research opportunities “through a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) process aimed at supplementing the PMC’s knowledge about pain management and the potential effects of pain and cannabinoids on athletic performance in elite football players.”

Former NFL player Ricky Williams has long been an outspoken supporter of the use of cannabis as a form of pain management. Photo Credit: Real Wellness

Finding alternatives to opioid use among players is a critical aspect of player safety. Opioids are highly addictive and dangerous when abused, as they can slow a user’s breathing and heart rate, ultimately resulting in accidental overdoses and death. Unfortunately, given the nature of the game, opioid abuse among football players is a serious issue, which is why research into cannabis as an alternative method of pain management is essential for protecting the wellbeing of players.

According to the NFL’s website, the purpose of the research taking place at the University of California San Diego is to “assess the therapeutic efficacy and adverse effects of THC, CBD…for relief of post-competition soft-tissue injury pain in elite athletes.” Whereas the purpose of the research taking place at the University of Regina, on the other hand, is focused on determining whether CBD and THC “can be used safely and effectively for pain management and to reduce the use of prescription medications including opioids in post-concussion syndrome athletes.” The University of Regina study is also studying the “neuroprotective properties of cannabinoids to reduce the incidence or severity of acute and chronic concussion in professional football players.”

Should these two research programs find in favor for the use of CBD and cannabis among NFL players, a wonderful alternative to opioid use and more accessible pain management will be made available for the players. Further, the acceptance of these substances for medical purposes will help eliminate the stigma that has surrounded professional athletes’ use of cannabis. Unfortunately, players who have self-medicated with cannabis in the past have been painted in a criminal light, with corresponding damage to their image and have even been subject to league discipline. 

One of the most vocal former NFL players in support of marijuana use has been Ricky Williams. During his time in the NFL, Williams was suspended five times for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, which subsequently caused him to miss two entire seasons. Williams has been very open about using cannabis to ease his anxiety and as a form of pain management due to the injuries he endured over his career. Williams is a prime example of how the NFL may be long overdue in its consideration of cannabis and CBD as pain management among players. 

Gronkowski has used his platform to advocate his support of the use of CBS as a pain management tool. Photo Credit: Gregory Bull/Associated Press

More recently, Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski has spoke out about his support of CBD as a pain management tool when he began endorsing CBD Medic in 2019. During his short retirement, Gronkowski used his platform to advocate to the major sports leagues that CBD should be able to be used by all of the players as an acceptable form of pain management. Gronkowksi expressed his support for the substance by explaining that “…For the first time in a decade, I’m pain-free.”

While NFL’s newly funded research into cannabis use may take some time to see results, it is an exciting step in the right direction for player safety and pain management.

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Co-President of the Buffalo Sports & Entertainment Law Society 2021-2022.

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