As another season of the National Football League is underway (which will culminate with Super Bowl 50 next February) the issue of player safety is once again an issue, with the release of a new report on concussions.
That study, by the NFL's Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, was published in Neurosurgery magazine. Researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University studied the brains of 91 deceased players and found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 87 of them. CTE happens when a person receives numerous blows to the head over an extended period of time, causing progressive damage to nerve cells in the brain. This damage can lead to memory loss, depression and dementia. Dr. Elliott Pellman, the team physician for the New York Jets, served as the study’s lead researcher. He said the best way to understand the damage of concussions is to imagine the brain as a Jell-O mold. “If you bang that Jell-O mold,” he said, long after the blow, “the Jell-O is just jiggling around, that's probably what's going on with a player's brain.”
More and more people are calling for the NFL to incorporate medicinal marijuana in its strategy for preventing and treating concussions. Leading the way is eleven-year NFL veteran Marvin Washington, who played for the 1998 Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Along with two other former players, Scott Fujita and Brendon Ayanbadejo, he’s asked the NFL to come up with “a more rational and science-based approach to marijuana.” Earlier this year, they wrote that “a compound in marijuana called cannabidiol (CBD) has shown scientific potential to be an antioxidant and neuroprotectant for the brain. In a sport where closed head injuries are common, the league should be doing everything it can to help keep their players healthy during and after their careers.” The U.S Department of Health and Human Services even holds a patent that backs up this claim.
The HBO show Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel recently reported that between 50 and 60 percent of current NFL players use marijuana, mainly for pain relief. Research indicates that use of marijuana can reduce reliance on opiate-based drugs and anti-inflammatories, which can have deleterious side affects. The Nation Hockey League does not include marijuana on its list of banned substances and earlier this year the NCAA announced it would reconsider testing student-athletes for recreational drugs because “they do not provide a competitive advantage.”
The NFL tests players for drugs once a year, between April 20 and August 9. If a player passes that test, he’s good for another year. If he tests positive, he must enter an intervention program. In 2014, the league announced an updated testing policy that allows the equivalent of about one joint a week. Where does the NFL stand on players using marijuana to treat the symptoms of concussions? When asked if he could envision a time where players could use medical marijuana in states where it's legal, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell seemed to punt on the issue. “I don't know what's going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries, but we will continue to support the evolution of medicine,” he said. “I'm not a medical expert. We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that. Our medical experts are not saying that right now.”