On a Saturday evening, about two weeks before the beginning of the 2019 NFL season, 29-year-old Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck stood in front of the press as he often did. This would be no ordinary briefing. Instead, Luck stunned the league, shocked his fans, and torpedoed fantasy football rosters across the country by announcing his early retirement from football

After seven short seasons in the League, Luck boldly broke the cardinal rule of professional football – playing through the pain. He cited multiple injuries and the grueling recovery and rehabilitation process that accompanies them. “For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it.” Luck continued, “The only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.”

Days later, another famous football player splashed across television, emotionally reflecting on his decision to leave the NFL in March. Rob Gronkowski fought back tears as he stated, I want to be clear to my fans. I needed to recover. I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down, and I didn’t like it. I was losing that joy in life.”

Unlike Luck, Gronkowski gave his fans something to smile about. He shared that life is looking up and that he is, “very satisfied with where I am in life now…I truly believe that going through those tough times, nine years — off the field, on the field — has brought me to this point and I believe I’m on the right path in my life.”

From TD to CBD
Gronkowski wasn’t stealing Luck’s limelight. While emotional, he stood with purpose and pleaded with professional sports owners and commissioners around the globe. “For the first time in more than a decade, I am pain-free, and that’s a big deal,” he said. “I’m here today to appeal to the sports governing bodies of the world to update their position on CBD, whether that’s the NBA, MLB or NFL. It’s just time.”

As he announced that he was partnering with Abacus Health Products, Gronkowski was quick to add that CBD “would have made a huge difference for me, I believe, during my playing career.”

According to the press release issued by Abacus, the Rhode Island-based hemp CBD products company, Gronkowski will be supporting their existing product line as well as assisting in the collaboration of new and innovative products in the future.

Will chronic pain kill the NFL – and its former players?
While the unexpected departure of two of its star players may have stunned the League, the reasoning behind it should terrify it. Two players, both under thirty, walking away from the game and the obscenely lucrative opportunities that come with it. Both for the same reason — pain. 

Luck and Gronkowski aren’t the only ones. Players are witnessing what their older retired NFL brothers are going through – the severe disability and dementia – and they are making their health a priority before it’s too late.

Former QB Jim McMahon could be a poster child for post-NFL downfalls. In 2009, he was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and struggles with depression, memory loss, and unrelenting headaches. McMahon suffered countless concussions and an undiagnosed broken neck as an NFL player. Through his career he became addicted to prescription narcotic painkillers to help manage his chronic pain. He said he would take 100 Percocet pills a month to try and numb the pain before turning to medical marijuana.

Eddie “Boo” Williams suffered a gruesome preseason injury in 2005, which ultimately ended his career. Following, he struggled with depression, anxiety and rage. He described to Vice the moment in 2011 when he decided to end his life. “I was in a dark place,” he said. “I thought I was a small person in a big person’s body. I felt like I had no purpose.” Williams was not far from the Saints’ training facility when he walked towards the railroad tracks and lay across them. He was saved by a homeless couple and ultimately sought treatment for depression and chronic pain.

Today, Williams says, “I stay medicated. When I got into cannabis, that’s when I started sleeping. The racing thoughts stopped. I started processing stuff right.”

Sadly, Junior Seau, former NFL linebacker who spent most of his career with the San Diego Chargers, didn’t get that second chance. Seau announced his retirement in January 2010, and just two years later, died by suicide at the age of 43. The National Institutes of Health studied Seau’s brain and did reveal that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

Davd Duerson played for 10 years in the NFL before he retired in 1993. Just one year before Seau took his own life, Duerson put a gun to his chest and killed himself. Duerson battled for years with memory loss and abusive behavior. It was confirmed post-mortem that Duerson had CTE, caused by concussions throughout his playing career.

Cannabis can save the League – will the NFL adapt or die?
It is no secret that the NFL holds a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to player’s and their use of cannabis. A policy that stands in contrast with the prevalent prescription and use of opiates in football. According to a survey of former players, 52% reported using opioids while playing in the League. These drugs were procured through team medical staff, the same team responsible for testing players for illegal drugs – cannabis being one of those.

Testing positive for cannabis can cost a player his career, or at minimum get him tossed into the NFL drug program. 

Boo Williams knows that program all too well. According to Vice Magazine, “Boo was told that there would be no drug testing during minicamp, but was misinformed on that front. He tested positive for marijuana, and so was admitted into the NFL’s drug program for the next two years.” Williams recalls, “That program was a bunch of bullshit. They have doctors and therapists come talk to you about your use of cannabis. They really think something is wrong with you, that you’re crazy. They treat you worse than someone who is an alcoholic because of the stigmatization that’s been put on this plant.”

With more and more players coming out in support of cannabis use as a treatment for chronic pain, anxiety and sleep disorders, the NFL has no choice but to open their eyes to the possibility.

Former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Eugene Monroe has been a very vocal advocate for bringing cannabis to the League. “This pain is never going away,” Monroe said. “My body is damaged. 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 is not expected to rush into a decision on cannabis policy
The NFL and the NFLPA (Players Association) have agreed, for the first time, to work together in studying the potential use of cannabis as a pain management tool for players. This at least indicates a small shift in consideration when it comes to the plant and what it may do for players.

“I think it’s a proud day for the NFL and the NFLPA to come together on these issues in a very public way,” said Allen Sills, the league’s Chief Medical Officer. “I think it demonstrates the spirit of cooperation we have around our health and safety issues.”

The committees are expected to break into two groups – one focusing on pain management, and the other on mental health and wellness. While the pain management group is not solely focused on cannabis, it will be a big part of the discussion.

“We’re asking our pain management committee to bring us any and all suggestions,” Sills said. “We’ll look at marijuana.”

The NFL is notoriously slow to change, but this progressive move to explore cannabis use is somewhat encouraging. 

The May 2019 USA Today Opinion Piece by Jarett Bell summed up the move to build committees quite succinctly. “How weird. There are 33 states and the District of Columbia that legally allow the use of marjunana in some form for medical (and, in many cases, recreational) purposes, but a pro football player with a broken-up body has to work around the NFL’s policy if desiring such a pain-management measure. It’s striking that despite the increasing acceptance of marijuana as a healing aid, Commissioner Roger Goodell maintained, “It’s much broader than that.”

Former players touchdown in the cannabis industry
Earlier this year, legendary Super Bowl winning quarterback Joe Montana made headlines when his venture capital firm, Liquid 2 Ventures, became a major investor in Caliva, leading the San Jose based cannabis company’s $75 million first round. This comes on the heels of another cannabis investment Montana made in 2017, when he threw $4.1 million at the cannabis news and media company, Herb

Ruben Lindo, left, and Marvin Washington, during their appearances on MediaJel’s Liquid Lounge.

While Montana’s recent investment is one of the largest athlete partnerships in the cannabis industry to date, it’s hardly the only one. Football has seen former pros both publicly and professionally embrace the plant. Retired players like Tiki Barber, Ruben Lindo and Marvin Washington have all founded or joined cannabis ventures. 

“We love this industry because it’s always changing, day to day, week to week,” Washington told MediaJel about working with Isodiol in cannabis, “But it’s fun. We’re educating people and telling them about the medicinal benefits of this wonderful plant.”  

Washington took it a step further. With fellow football pros Nate Jackson and Eben Britton, along with professional athletes from other sports, Washington co-founded the non-profit Athletes for CARE. The advocacy group calls itself, “a community of athletes finding support, opportunity and purpose in life after a career in sports by using their influence for social change.” With a mission of, “uniting athletes as one voice to advocate for research, education, and compassion when addressing important health issues.”

From Career-Ender to Career Launchpad
Despite the success former-athletes are finding in cannabis, for most current pro-athletes, use of the plant is strictly prohibited and can lead to a player’s termination, like the 2016 firing of Eugene Monroe by the Baltimore Ravens, following his public admission that he uses cannabis. In the time since, Monroe has made it his mission to, “get the NFL to accept cannabinoids as a viable option for pain management.” He currently serves as a Diversity Consultant for Green Thumb Industries.

Among the starkest examples of professional sports’ treatment of its athletes and cannabis comes from the story of former NFL running back, Ricky Williams. Williams gained notoriety in the 2000’s for being forced to temporarily retire from the league not once, but twice — in 2004 and again in 2005 — for failing cannabis drug tests. Despite these events, the Heisman Trophy winner played professionally for 10 years, finally retiring for good in 2011. After football, Williams took the interest in cannabis and alternative medicines that threatened his first career, and created his second. Williams became a trained herbalist and healer, and In 2018, founded Real Wellness, a cannabis wellness brand.

“Cannabis has played an important part in my healing journey, and I feel a responsibility to share what I have learned in the process,” Ricky Williams says of his career and the plant, “It doesn’t cut your awareness off from your body, the way most pain medications do. It actually increases awareness of your body.”

Cannabis will change the game – it will save lives – if the league allows it
While the mass migration of professional athletes from sports to cannabis may be remarkable, it’s not surprising. Cannabis offers former pros two very important things: relief and reinvention.

On a basic level. The plant is appealing to athletes for its purported pain relieving abilities. Though clinical cannabis research is still rare, it’s been shown to help manage, at least anecdotally, many of the most common ailments current and former football pros experience, like chronic pain, inflammation and even traumatic brain injuries. For many players, cannabis represents the relief they seek. For Kyle Turley, a former offensive linemen for the Saints, Rams and Chiefs, it represents much more.

“During my NFL career, I became reliant on pain killers and endured a 20-year struggle with depression, anxiety and rage.” Turley said, “I was diagnosed with [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy] (CTE) due to the 100-plus concussions I endured during my time in the NFL. I began a downward spiral of pharmaceutical addiction, violent thoughts and suicidal tendencies. Medical Marijuana literally saved my life. Without it I would not be here today. I would not have my family, my kids, my house, everything I have right now, if not for cannabis. Period.”

Since using cannabis to reclaim his life, Turley launched his brand, Neuro XPF, a hemp CBD company geared towards athletes and active adults. In his role, Turley serves as a brand ambassador and a cannabis advocate. He’s found purpose in the plant that saved his life. 

There is no dispute here. The athletes messages are crystal clear. Current and former athletes want treatment options. They want to be able to manage what goes into their bodies and to choose their own pain management path. Gone are the days of popping pills on planes after a long Sunday bloodbath.

Tiki Barber was matter-of-fact in saying, “The more quickly we can get cannabis legalized federally, the better off athletes will be.” He continued, “It is a matter of inevitability.”

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