Research Is Running Out the Clock on the NFL’s Cannabis Ban

By J.J. McCoy, Senior Managing Editor, New Frontier Data

Whenever one sits to watch a Super Bowl, they can expect to hear about all kinds of numbers. Beyond the game’s score and the stats, there will be some Roman numerals for Super Bowl 54, there will be talk about the cost of the commercials (about $5.6 million for a 30-second slot) and how many there are (77 in-game slots this year), and about how many people will be watching (TV viewership has dropped each year since 114.4 million watched in 2015, though streaming keeps setting records). There will even be talk about the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl: The 49ers’ assistant offensive coach Katie Sowers is being featured in a Microsoft commercial, “Be the One”.

What the NFL will not be promoting, however, is either how many of its players rely on cannabis to perform come game day, its lack of movement regarding legal cannabis and CBD, or the numbers of active and former players (and their families) impacted by the league’s inaction. Ironically – considering what might represent the sport’s most pressing existential threat – the league will also be missing out on discussion about how cannabis may mitigate the risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Though talk between the league and the players’ union about cannabis reform has been going on since at least 2017, the NFL has generally claimed having insufficient evidence to update its policy, and it still bans the use of cannabis by players even though 24 (75%) of the 32 NFL teams play in legalized medical (14) or adult-use (10) cannabis markets. Overall, according to an ESPN study last spring, 82% of North America’s major professional sports teams play in markets with legal cannabis: 45 of the 123 teams across the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL play in states or provinces where recreational use is allowed, with 56 in locales where medical cannabis is prescribed.

Yet while active NFL players can be fined or suspended for using them, a host of former players like former Chiefs offensive lineman Kyle Turley and former 49ers player Jamie Brown (also of the Super Bowl XXXII champion Denver Broncos) tout cannabis and CBD while speaking out about how the NFL shielded them from understanding what CTE was, and how the league failed to divulge some dangerous side effects from all the painkillers and psychiatric medications prescribed by team doctors (indeed, in 2014 the league ran afoul of the Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA] after NFL member teams had gotten caught traveling with controlled substances across state lines).

In a June interview, Reuben Droughns (running back for the Super Bowl XLII champion NY Giants) told how “the majority of players, through my college and particularly my professional career, used cannabis for pain management. To be honest, I think it’s a high percentage of players that use it. I would estimate that from what I experienced, anywhere from 80% to 90% of football players use some type of cannabis medicine. The alternative is to use opioids, which most players want to avoid, if possible, for day-to-day chronic pain.” Percy Harvin (wide receiver for the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks) likewise told how he smoked marijuana before games to treat anxiety.

New Frontier Data’s research has confirmed that such applications are not uncommon. In the 2018-2019 Cannabis Consumer Report: Archetypes, Preferences & Trends, 42% of respondents reported consuming THC for pain management, an application reinforced in the EU CBD Consumer Report, when 40% of European respondents reported consuming cannabis for the same reason (For that matter, the TV network seeking its largest audience may be interested to know that nearly a third [31%] of American cannabis consumers surveyed for their preferences reported that they enjoyed watching sports).

For adults who choose to play, cannabis has shown promise for potentially alleviating some of the risks. Research has shown that cannabinoids may reduce the brain’s oxidative stress following a traumatic brain injury. Despite federal prohibition of cannabis, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently holds a patent on cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.

Of potentially even greater medical gravity is the role which cannabis may play in defending against CTE. Though doctors have been studying the phenomenon since 1928 (when pathologist Harrison Martland observed several boxers as being “punch drunk”), and after more than 15 years of intensive international research, scientific knowledge of CTE remains uncertain; even among experts, many important aspects of the disease — from its symptoms, to how prevalent or rare it is — remain open to debate, if concern about it does not.

On the positive side of the discussion, some experts suggest that cannabis may hold the potential to not only reduce but actually reverse the effects of CTE. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound in cannabis, has been shown to stimulate parts of the brain involved in healing after a traumatic brain injury.

According to a Harvard Medical School expert, “many doctors and researchers believe that marijuana has incredibly powerful neuroprotective properties.”

A 2013 Brazilian study showed that cannabidiol could regenerate brain cells in mice, specifically in the areas of the brain attributed to depression, anxiety, and chronic stress—the symptoms of CTE.

A 2014 review of traumatic brain injury cases at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center found that patients who tested positive for high levels of THC were less likely to die of their injuries.

Last year the largest study of CTE to date discovered that approximately 6% of subjects were found to have the neurodegenerative disorder. Among those who play football, however, the risk may be far higher.

In 2018, a study from Boston University’s VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank found that—among players who played in college but did not play professionally—CTE was diagnosed in 57 among 66 (86%). Worse, 190 of 202 football players (94%) studied who played in college or the NFL have been diagnosed with CTE.

In 2017 a convenience sample of 202 deceased players of American football found even higher rates of CTE; it was neuropathologically diagnosed in 177 players across all levels of play (87%).

The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed the prevalence of CTE among 110 of 111 former National Football League players (99%).

It makes intuitive sense that the rates among NFL players would be higher; indeed, a third study described the longer a player’s career, the riskier the odds of CTE.

Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been 26,222 players. If the confirmed rates of CTE are consistent, it would potentially mean that between 22,550 and 25,960 of those individuals suffered or are suffering from CTE.

If the league would ignore those numbers at players’ peril, there are others which cast doubt on the future of the NFL itself: Fewer kids play. Right before CTE first made headlines in 2015, a UPMC poll recorded 25% of parents claiming that they would not allow their child to participate in contact sports due to concerns about concussions. Starting the next year, the Aspen Institute tracked a 12% decline in tackle football participation from 2016-17; according to data from it and National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS), between 2008-‘09 and 2018-‘19 the total number of youths ages 6-18 playing tackle football fell by more than 620,000, from about 2.5 million to less than 1.9 million – nearly a one-quarter drop in participants.

For its part, after some negotiations last month with the league toward a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the NFL Players Association told its members of tentative agreements including “significant modifications” to the league’s drug and disciplinary policies, including its attitude toward cannabis.

While other issues remain to be resolved for the NFL’s CBA to be completed, scientists and football fans alike can hope that the league doesn’t drop the ball.