Sports is something that—in America especially—brings everyone together. Fans will block out every Sunday for the length of football season, leave work early for a game, and even create friendships (or enemies) with people solely based upon their choice of team. We are wrapped up in the games that keep on giving, but what about the players that are performing in those games? The ones who are providing us with entertainment? There is a side behind the scenes that most of us are not aware of, because it’s not glamorized or showcased to the spectator.
Sports can take a major toll on the body and mind. All too often, an athlete endures various degrees of injuries within a game, is fed painkillers and sent back to play when their injury should have been attended to at that moment to prevent long-term issues. Nine former NFL players have argued that the league put their health in jeopardy by prescribing powerful painkillers to treat injuries and combining medications into dangerous “drug cocktails” without informing them of their addictive properties and negative side effects. The plaintiffs allege that, “in contravention of Federal criminal laws, the NFL has intentionally, recklessly and negligently created and maintained a culture of drug misuse, putting profit in place of players’ health.” This poses an even bigger problem, as we are currently in the midst of an opioid crisis. Regardless of the sport or the league, all athletes can find a common connection over pain they endure.
A serious concern in contact sports is CTE. CTE, an acronym for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Once CTE takes over, a protein known as tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain with an uncompromisable mission to kill brain cells. Concussions have a direct correlation to the formation of CTE, making the issue a pressing matter for athletes in contact sports. According to Play Smart Play Safe, in 2019 alone 224 NFL players reported incidence of concussions. A recent study of CTE and football found signs of CTE in 99% of deceased NFL players who had donated their organs to be studied. That’s nearly every single NFL player. With research showing cannabis having anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective properties, it should seem like a no-brainer that athletes should be able to consume for pain management. This is not the case in most professional leagues, for now.
The sports world is starting to open their eyes to cannabis as a possibility for pain management. In December 2019, the MLB officially removed cannabis from the banned substance list for baseball players. The drug policy change came after 27-year-old Anaheim Angels player Tyler Skaggs died of an opioid overdose, prompting a shift in how the league can respond to the opioid crisis. Former Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe spoke on his relationship with cannabis after he was released from the team in 2016. When speaking on his pain, Monroe told the Washington Post “I have to manage it somehow. Managing it with pills was slowly killing me. Now I’m able to function and be extremely efficient by figuring out how to use different formulations of cannabis.” The NFL has the strictest drug policy in major league sports. Meanwhile, the National Hockey League has been ahead of the curve. Players don’t receive punishment for testing positive for cannabis. This ultimately allows NHL players to make their own decision on how to handle their pain.
The key to natural pain management lies in cannabis’s ability to lock into pain receptors through the body’s endocannabinoid system without the assistance of synthetic and damaging properties like those found in opioids. This is especially true for cannabidiol or CBD, the chemical compound found within the cannabis plant, as it not only aids in pain management, but works to bring the body to homeostasis while also aiding in body repair and protection.
Considering the US government has a patent on CBD as a neuroprotectant and cannabis doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, we can only hope to see major sports leagues working toward more progressive policies.