Which game is America’s favorite sport? It may not surprise you to hear that the answer is football, and it’s been football for a long time. According to Gallup research, football’s popularity has exceeded its two most prominent U.S. counterparts, baseball and basketball, every year since 1972. That popularity means big money for the National Football League, who made almost $17 billion in revenue during their 2018 season.
Star players get a big share of that wealth–Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russel Wilson signed a $35 million contract for 2019, while Ben Roethlisberger with the Pittsburgh Steelers signed one worth $34 million. Less famous players can still live comfortably on the $480,000 minimum one-year starting salary for rookie players or the $2.7 million league-wide average.
The sky-high salaries of top football players–not to mention the fame and endorsement deals that come along with sports stardom–makes playing in the NFL a dream job for many aspiring athletes. But the reality is more complicated.
Most NFL careers are short–ranging from 2.57 years for running backs to 4.87 years for kickers. And any time spent playing in the NFL–whether it’s one season or a dozen–is physically exhausting. The health prices NFL players pay for pursuing their athletic passion, regardless of career length or position, can be high.
While pain and injuries are a risk of any sport, the intense athleticism and physical contact of American football means NFL players tend to experience more injuries than any other athlete. Players and other NFL staff have shared stories of games played through a wide range of injuries, from snapped tendons to broken ribs.
Players and team staff may feel incentivized to hide, minimize, or play through injuries due to personal pride, team loyalty, or financial incentives. In one NFL player survey, 90% reported playing while injured, and 68% reported feeling they had no other choice if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Luckily, things are changing. Increased attention to concussions and sub-concussive injuries has led to implementation of the “Helmet Rule,” which punishes helmet-to-helmet contact during play.
Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio recently praised a cultural shift towards less symptom-hiding among players. High-profile retirements have also brought more attention to the challenges of NFL stardom.
Famed Patriots tight end Robert “Gronk” Gronkowski shocked his fans by retiring from the NFL at 29, citing intense cycles of physical pain that sapped his motivation to play the sport he loves. Colts player Andrew Luck also sent shockwaves through the NFL after retiring at the peak of his career. Luck described feeling “stuck” in an “unceasing, unrelenting” cycle of injury, pain, and rehab.
Gradual culture change in the NFL has had many consequences for players and fans, and one of those consequences is a change in how players manage pain. Traditional pain medication such as opioids may sound like the obvious choice for these elite athletes.
But more and more are turning to cannabis–and specifically to the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD–instead. Why are NFL players turning to CBD? Their reasoning shows how CBD can help anyone who needs pain management tools, whether they’re an elite NFL athlete or an ordinary person looking for a safer alternative to opioids.
Painkillers are Dangerous and Addictive
Pain can be a side-effect of pursuing any passion–work-related injuries and the pain they inflict have been documented and studied among ballet dancers, bartenders, and office workers–and painkillers can be part of a medically sound treatment plan for any injured worker. But when do painkillers become a bandaid for a bigger problem?
With the opioid crisis sweeping the continent, it’s a question that extends far beyond football. But football has also had a more direct relationship with painkillers than most other sports. Lawsuits filed by ex-players have described “reckless” over-prescription of painkillers such as Toradol, an injectable anti-inflammatory NSAID drug invented for short-term use.
Toradol’s own makers advise against the kind of long term, often prophylactic use allegedly common in the NFL and often administered without players’ full understanding of the drug’s under-studied side effects. NSAID overuse can damage kidneys and increase internal bleeding. Lawsuits allege that at least one NFL player has died of NSAID-related heart failure.
Toradol may sound “safer” because it’s not habit-forming–but NFL players have plenty of encounters with narcotics, opioids, and other addictive painkillers as well. Opioids are technically banned within the league, but players still describe a culture of heavy opioid use encouraged by team doctors and trainers.
Opioids and narcotics are highly habit-forming because human brain can build up a resistance to their endorphine-triggering effects, requiring higher and higher doses to trigger pleasurable sensations or even feel “normal.”
Narcotic addiction, whether it’s heroin or prescribed painkillers, can be devastating, ruining jobs and personal relationships. 130 people die from opioid overdose in the United States every day.
Painkiller abuse is especially common among retired NFL players coping with chronic injuries. One study found that retired players abused painkillers at three times the typical rate for similar age/gender groups, and another found that about half of all surveyed players experience chronic pain.
Painkiller use during their careers may significantly contribute to retirees’ chronic issues. Players describe feeling “numb” and “invincible” after receiving painkillers, able to rush into further physical damage on the field instead of taking the time to heal or even realizing the severity of their injuries.
“The propensity to kill the pain outright has helped create a dishonest relationship between a player’s body and the game of football,” writes former Broncos player Nate Jackson. The alternative he suggests? Cannabis.
CBD May Be Neuro-Protective
It’s only in recent times that the medical establishment–and football players and fans–have begun to understand the risks of repeated concussions and subconcussive impacts during professional-level football.
But the evidence is difficult to ignore. In one study, scientists looking for signs of CTE–chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disorder tied to head trauma–in 111 donated brains from deceased NFL players found evidence of the disorder in all but one sample.
Symptoms of CTE, which can emerge years after players retire, include confusion, headaches, emotional instability, depression, and progressive dementia. CTE has been implicated as a factor in the suicides of several retired football players.
Closer study of CTE, player education, rule changes, and improving helmet technology are all strategies currently underway to reduce players’ CTE risks. And there’s early evidence that cannabinoids may play an important role in protecting players’ brains, as well.
Cannabidiol and THC were both identified as neuroprotective antioxidants as early as 1998, when researchers observed both compounds’ ability to protect brain tissue immediately after a stroke.
Other studies have identified a positive correlation between traumatic brain injury survival and a positive THC screen, observed improvements of TBI symptoms in mice given CBD, and recorded CBD’s ability to protect brain tissue and support other bodily symptoms after strokes.
CBD and other cannabinoids, in short, may play an important role in protecting players’ brains after head trauma, making a striking contrast to common Tetradol–an overused NFL painkiller that likely makes the consequences of concussions more severe.
CBD Can Help Fight Pain
A growing number of players understandably try to avoid NSAID and narcotic painkillers–but living with the frequently extreme pain of chronic or recent injuries or surgery recovery is hardly sustainable, either.
Players need a way to manage pain without numbing themselves into further injury, risking addiction and overdose, or exposing themselves to serious side effects.
According to Penguin CBD, a growing number are turning to cannabis options (both marijuana and THC-free CBD products), and studies suggest the benefits they experience from cannabis are far more than just a placebo effect.
Researchers have recorded rats experiencing significant arthritis-related pain improvement after receiving topical CBD. Scientists who have examined the current literature covering CBD and pain management have concluded that CBD holds significant promise for chronic pain management.
CBD works on pain, and it does it without exposing players to the risks of pharmaceutical painkillers. CBD is non-addictive and users don’t build up a “tolerance” and require larger doses over time. Doctors have yet to identify an excessive dosage size that would cause regular heavy users any harm.
Because it’s non-psychoactive, CBD doesn’t create the clouded judgment or sluggish thinking associated with narcotics. Because CBD doesn’t create a “numb” or “invincible” sensation, players are less likely to further injure themselves during the healing process.
CBD Can Promote Mental Wellbeing
Our physical and mental wellbeing are closely, closely linked–and that fact may be no more obvious than when it comes to feeling and managing pain.
Studies have confirmed the fairly intuitive principle that chronic pain can significantly increase sufferers’ risks of anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. The connection goes both ways: studies also show that trauma, depression, and anxiety can all increase chronic pain risk. Even expecting pain can in turn make the sensation of that pain worse.
The emotion-pain connection can create a tortuous cycle where thinking about physical pain makes the pain sensation more extreme and disruptive, which in turn increases negative thoughts about the pain. That’s why doctors managing difficult cases are increasingly recommending cognitive behavioral therapy in addition to more traditional therapies.
Few groups may be more familiar with chronic pain than NFL players, and many have also described its impact on their mental health. Andrew Luck and Robert Gronkowski both described not only the physical pain of football-related injuries, but the mental drain of expecting continuous injury and rehabilitation. Retired football players report more extreme depression symptoms due to the complications of chronic pain, and depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems are common symptoms of CTE.
CBD isn’t just useful for managing the immediate realities of physical pain. Evidence also suggests it can help NFL players promote mental wellbeing, helping them break out of the destructive pain-brain causation cycle.
While heavy opioid or alcohol use has been tied to increased incidence of depression and anxiety, studies suggest that CBD can reduce anxiety symptoms. Scientists have also gathered evidence it can act as an antidepressant and lessen symptoms of PTSD.
CBD’s potential for mental healthcare may be closely tied to its potential to treat sleep disorders and insomnia. Mental health conditions are serious and CBD may interact with some medications, so always consult a doctor before starting a CBD-based treatment plan or halting an existing one. But for NFL athletes and the rest of us, CBD holds promise for breaking the pain-brain cycle.
CBD Can Help Athletes Recover
CBD can help athletes recover from injuries and manage symptoms–but can it actually make them better athletes, too? A quick glance at the CBD oil marketplace shows that plenty of people use CBD in their workout regimens.
CBD may help athletes perform better by moderating inflammation after exercise, reducing muscle recovery time. When CBD helps an athlete sleep better and stress less, it’s probably also helping them perform better on game days, as both inadequate sleep and anxiety can significantly interfere with athletic performance.
Stigma is Going Down and Accessibility is Going Up
Tetradol and most opioid painkillers are ostensibly safe–why would the FDA have approved them if they weren’t? But more and more football players see that the reality is more complicated.
Tetradol was invented for short-term use during surgery recovery, not for dosing over months of intense physical contact and pain. Opioids are now being recognized as so potentially dangerous that a series of lawsuits are moving forward against drug makers for prioritizing profit margins over patient safety.
More and more Americans recognize the drawbacks of pharmaceuticals that are supposed to be “safe”–but more and more Americans also enjoy affordable, legal access to CBD. The 2018 Farm Bill created an important legal distinction between industrial “hemp”–that is, cannabis plants and derivatives with .3% or less THC content–and marijuana, which remains a controlled substance.
More legal and cultural acceptance of CBD has led to a booming CBD market, estimated to reach $20 billion by 2024.
CBD is currently forbidden in the NFL, though many interpreted the league’s decision to include cannabis in a study of “alternative” pain therapies as a glimmer of hope for more permissive policies in the future.
Retired NFL players are becoming more vocal about their current CBD use. Robert Gronkowski has partnered with a CBD company targeting athletes and hinted that a change in league-wide NFL policy might make him un-retire. Kyle Turley, Joe Montana, Chris Long, Eugene Monroe, Mike James, and Terrell Davis are just a few of the other former and current players who have spoken up about the positive impacts cannabis has made on their careers and their quality of life.
The fact that these athletes, many revered as sports heros in diverse households across the entire nation, are willing to praise CBD in public rather than use it in secret speaks volumes about how much our culture has changed.
But these athletes are also leaders in creating this change, showing many pain sufferers who may still associate cannabis with shiftless hippies and “reefer madness” that cannabis can create positive life changes for anyone, regardless of who they are or where their pain came from.