American football is a brutal sport. Many players leave the NFL disabled and many die young. For professional football players, "your job automatically gives you the symptom of chronic pain," says Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe.
Currently, most NFL team physicians, like most physicians nationwide, prescribe opioids for pain relief. But these drugs come with serious concerns about addiction and overdose.
According to NFL players, team physicians are among the most aggressive in pushing use of opioids to treat pain. Last year, former NFL players filed suit against the NFL alleging that teams conspired to use prescription painkillers to keep players off the injured reserve list. Specifically, the lawsuit claims that several well-known coaches, including Don Shula and Mike Holmgren, told players that they would be cut from their team unless they took the prescribed painkillers and played with their pain.
Retired NFL veteran Kyle Turley claims his team's medical staff would hand out Vicodin freely on the team flights home after games. "The trainers and the doctors used to go down the aisle and say, 'Who needs what?'" Turley said. According to other former players, Turley's experience is common. A recent study found that retired NFL players are more than four times as likely to abuse prescription painkillers than the general population.
Many players, including Monroe and Turley, say current NFL players commonly use cannabis to deal with the physical toll of the game. However, that's a problem in the NFL, which has a strict policy prohibiting the use of cannabis for any reason. Players are suspended for testing positive for cannabis, with significant professional and financial consequences. For example, Houston Texans receiver Jaelen Strong was recently arrested for cannabis possession in Arizona and will likely be suspended for one game, costing him $570,000.
Despite the NFL's awareness of the problems with opioid use among players, and a recent estimate of 30 to 40 percent of players using cannabis for pain treatment, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently said the league has no intention to change its cannabis use policy.