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Does the NFL have a drug problem?

NFL football helmet in grass player pain and drug usage

Does the NFL have a drug problem?

In 2011, Washington Redskins’ left tackle and team captain, Trent Williams, was handed a four game ban for smoking pot. Under the league’s regulations, he could have lost an entire season for positive drug tests, but agreed to a deal that limited his suspension to the four remaining games of the regular season.

In 2014, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice initially was banned for two games for punching his now-wife. In 2016, New York Giants’ kicker, Josh Brown, received a one game suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident involving his wife. Later, Washington state police released documents in which Brown purportedly admitted to repeatedly abusing his wife in the past, but the one game ban held, despite the league’s personal conduct policy calling for a minimum six game ban for instances of domestic violence.

An otherwise upstanding player gets a 4 game ban for weed, but a serial domestic abuser only misses one game. Somehow, that math doesn’t add up.

Compounding the NFL’s faulty arithmetic, is the ongoing conflict between players and team docs as to how the men involved in what is admittedly a violent sport rife with both acute and chronic injury, are to handle the pain that is part and parcel of life on and off the field.


“Every day, I wake up in pain, from my ankles to my neck,” said Ebenezer Ekuban, 40, who played defensive end for nine NFL seasons. “It’s part of the territory. I know what I signed up for.”(1)


Man with mouth full of prescription drug capsulesFootball players have always dealt with pain via anti-inflammatories, heavy duty prescription pain meds, and alcohol – so much so that the league is the subject of a federal lawsuit by the DEA to investigate opioid abuse by current and former players. According to one study, retired NFL players use opioids at four times the rate of the general population, and “players who misused during their NFL career were most likely to misuse currently compared to others. Current misuse was associated with more NFL pain, undiagnosed concussions and heavy drinking.”(2)


And retirement offers little reprieve. It has been called “a daily exercise in pain management” by more than one former player, prompting many to find alternative methods of controlling it.

One of those methods that is becoming increasingly popular is CBD. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, “research has found that CBD increases a molecule called anandamide, which reduces pain and increases the production of neurons in the hippocampus region of the brain, which can impact mood and anxiety.”

In the Washington Post article, Ekuban went on to say, “I think in due time, the NFL is going to realize that CBD is not a performance-enhancing drug. If anything, it helps with anxiety, helps with concentration, it helps with pain.”

“There is no doubt that players are using…extensively, almost as a substitution therapy for other treatments that the NFL is offering that they perceive as more toxic or highly addictive,” said Sue Sisley, an Arizona-based physician who serves on the board of advisers for the Korey Stringer Institute, which has partnered with the NFL on health and safety issues. “For instance, these players obviously receive mega-dosages of opioids easily from their trainers and team docs. But when they want to seek out what they believe is a safer, less toxic alternative…they’re fined and sanctioned.”(3)


Rolling Stone interviewed a number of current and former NFL players on the issue of pain management for an article last September.


Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe said he didn’t think that the NFL wants to get involved in federal jurisdiction areas, but former Broncos receiver Nate Jackson offered a different perspective: “They don’t have to come out and endorse marijuana and have Roger Goodell standing in front of a 20 foot banner of a marijuana leaf,” he said. “It can be part of a more complete wellness package that allows more options. I think the NFL could do it in a way that wasn’t gratuitous and didn’t alert any of the Reefer Madness crowd that it is going to be open season for stoners.”(4)

Former Cardinals and Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer points out that the NFL thinks it would be ceding power in changing the rules, but, in reality, “they’d be creating compassion, and I think showing that they care about the game and the players.”


1. Mease, R. (2017, May 2). NFL players fight pain with medical marijuana: ‘Managing it with pills was slowly killing me’. The Washington Post, retrieved from

2. Cottler, L. B., Abdallah, A. B., Cummings, S. M., Barr, J., Banks, R., & Forchheimer, R. (2011). Injury, Pain, and Prescription Opioid Use Among Former National Football League (NFL) Players. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 116(1-3), 188–194.

3. Mease, R. (2017, May 2). NFL players fight pain with medical marijuana: ‘Managing it with pills was slowly killing me’. The Washington Post, retrieved from

4. Benes, R. (2016, September 21). Inside NFL’s Backwards Marijuana Policy. Rolling Stone, retrieved from

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