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Roger Goodell’s Dangerous Stance on Marijuana

The NFL still can’t figure out how to manage player health issues

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

There are days — whole, beautiful days — when it is possible not to think about Roger Goodell. It is possible not to think about the terrible things football does to those who play it, or the ways the league and its commissioner try to deny/bury/defer those things, or the inherent complicity of watching anyway. On those days, it is possible just to revel in the sport and the exciting or maybe (?) finally (??) fully (???) thought out or [redacted] things on your team’s horizon, and the lazy, happy Sundays you can already picture yourself having in the not-so-distant future.

Then Goodell goes and says something like this:

That’s what the good commissioner said on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” show Friday morning, when asked if the NFL would consider softening its stance on marijuana to allow for medicinal use by players. “To date,” Goodell continued, “[the league’s medical advisers] haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players. If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that. But to date, they haven’t really said that.”

Roger, let’s cue up a tune and lay out some facts.

1. Some 133 million Americans — more than 53 percent of the adult population — are estimated to have tried marijuana; 55 million of those say they’ve consumed it in the past year. Medicinal use of the drug is now legal in 29 states plus the District of Columbia, and in eight states, recreational use is legal, too. A recent Yahoo News/Marist survey revealed that 19 percent of users report that they used the drug specifically for pain relief.

Sure: Goodell is tasked with representing 32 owners whose prevailing commonality is “geriatric billionaire,” which is not a condition that generally lends itself to progressive mores. But make no mistake — as commissioner, he is capable of advocating and legislating social change, as Adam Silver has done in the NBA. Goodell’s duty — in theory, anyway — is not to hold the league to the moral standards of decades past; it’s to determine how to do best by players (who overwhelmingly support the use of medical marijuana) and fans (who, as the numbers indicate, are generally supportive as well) in the present.

There is carefully weighing medical treatments before prescribing them to athletes, and then there’s plain old disregard of the evidence that medical marijuana (a) is a highly effective pain treatment and (b) carries a relatively low risk of addiction when used responsibly.

2. Speaking of the balance between efficacy and potential for addiction in pain treatment options: The NFL is currently in the midst of a lawsuit filed on behalf of 1,800 former players — the equivalent to every single member of every team’s 53-man roster and practice squads together, and then some more — over the league’s propensity for passing out powerful painkillers and anti-inflammatories with little or no regard for federal guidelines. The Washington Post reported that in 2012 alone, the average team “prescribed nearly 5,777 doses of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and 2,213 doses of controlled medications to its players,” which “could average out to about six to seven pain pills or injections a week per player over the course of a typical NFL season.”

A separate story in the Post describes a 2011 meeting between representatives from the DEA and doctors from all 32 NFL teams to caution the league about the dangers of prescribing opioids to players. The doctors “grew defensive, then angry.” At one point, a doctor asked a DEA official why the president was able to travel with drugs aboard Air Force One, a military plane. “So he says, ‘The military is exempt?’” the official told the Post. “‘Well, think of our players as warriors every Sunday on the field of battle.’ I was stunned.”

3. Here are some core competencies of the National Football League: putting on a show, putting on a profitable show, promising future shows will be even more profitable. Here’s its major freaking serial failure: handling players’ medical issues, particularly concerning pain management and long-term trauma. There’s the aforementioned lawsuit over the prescribing of opioids. There’s the mishandling of most everything related to concussions, from the years of denial that head trauma could cause long-term brain damage, to the attempts to defame many of the researchers who proved that it did, to the employment of the wholly unqualified rheumatologist Elliot Pellman as the head of the league’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, to the inability to use its ostensibly independent concussion spotters to stop things like Cam Newton being brutalized in the first game of the 2016 season.

So when Goodell lists the “medical advisers,” “joint advisers,” and “independent advisers” who are “studying” whether or not medical marijuana is a viable treatment for players, you shouldn’t just go looking for a grain of salt. Look for a whole damn pillar.