The NFL Opening a New Playbook for Cannabis and CBD

NFL sports cbd hemp

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

As the National Football League (NFL) prepares to open its training camps later this month, it looks to be a whole new ballgame where legal cannabis is concerned.

Last month, the league and the NFL Players Association announced their joint funding of a combined $1 million in research pilot studies to better quantify the effects of cannabis and CBD regarding athletic performance, pain management, and non-pharmacological medical treatments. By the league’s own mission statement, its “intent is to demonstrate the potential for translational breakthroughs by leveraging innovative research, emerging science, current data sets, and archival material related to use of alternatives to opiates in the management of pain, as well as the impact of cannabis or cannabinoids on athletic performance in elite football players.”

Considering how star running back and 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams shook up the NFL’s status quo when he retired in 2004 rather than serve a four-game suspension for having failed a second drug test for marijuana, the league has come a long way. In recent years, though the NFL had resisted relaxing its marijuana rules to avoid conflicting with federal and state laws, the expansion of state reforms legalizing cannabis for medical or adult uses have forced the league’s hand.

Last year, the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement was approved with team owners removing the possibility for any player to be suspended from playing (or receiving pay) due to a positive test of any substance (beyond cannabis alone).

As camps open, many more franchises play their games in states where cannabis is legal in some form (78%) than where it is forbidden (22%). A breakdown of the 32 teams’ home stadiums includes 13 locales where cannabis is fully legal: Arizona (Glendale), California (Inglewood [2], Santa Clara), Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago) Massachusetts (Foxborough), Michigan (Detroit), Nevada (Paradise), New Jersey (East Rutherford [2]), New York (Orchard Park), and Washington (Seattle), with another 12 where it is legal for medical use: Florida (Jacksonville, Miami Gardens, Tampa), Louisiana (New Orleans), Maryland (Baltimore, Landover), Missouri (Kansas City), Minnesota (Minneapolis), Ohio (Cincinnati, Cleveland), and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh); versus seven where cannabis remains prohibited: Georgia (Atlanta), Indiana (Indianapolis), North Carolina (Charlotte), Tennessee (Nashville), Texas (Arlington, Houston), and Wisconsin (Green Bay).

According to Anna Valent, executive director of Athletes for CARE, a 501(c)3, non-for-profit organization founded in 2017, the hope is that the NFL’s “funding into research on the therapeutic use of cannabis and cannabinoids, like CBD… is a beginning and means a shift in attitude towards cannabis as a treatment option for many conditions. Hopefully, this small investment will give them the confidence to integrate cannabis into their other research initiatives.” The organization aims to help current and former players to improve health and wellness outcomes for those dealing with physical and mental illnesses including anxiety, chronic pain, depression, opioid dependency, substance abuse, or conditions including CTE, PTSD, or TBI.

In 2018, former NFL tight end Martellus Bennett told USA Today that upwards of 89 percent of players were using it to address pre-game anxiety, ease effects of concussion, or alleviate pain as an alternative to opioids.

Even while an expanding list of therapeutic applications gains currency, however, concerns legitimately exist about potential interactions with other drugs as professional athletes turn to cannabis products for pain management, muscle recovery, relief from inflammation, etc. Unfortunately, NFL officials note, as of yet there is no conclusive scientific evidence as to how, whether, or to what extent that commonly available products safely work. In June, Dr. Kevin Hill, who co-chairs a committee on pain management for the NFL and its players’ association, warned that “there is a growing body of evidence that suggests it’s a little bit more risky than people think,” given the federally unregulated purity and various potency of cannabis products and their potential interactions with other drugs that players take, including risks for liver damage.

According to New Frontier Data’s research, the percentage of consumers who use cannabis-related products for athletics is fairly small (about 8% of among respondents) but will doubtlessly increase if the NFL concludes that cannabis and CBD are good enough for its elite athletes.