In 2002, when Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams stepped away from the National Football League, many people laughed. The assumption was that Williams was merely a pothead seeking isolation from a world he was unequipped to handle.
Revelations since Williams’ year-long suspension for Marijuana use offer a more nuanced perspective of his decision-making process. As has come to light more and more in recent years, professional football players often live in tremendous amounts of pain, incomprehensible to those of us who have not played in the league. In comparison to other athletes, they have disproportionately poorer health and quality of life after their careers. Many of these “revelations“ — from concussions to helmet product liability — have lead to massive litigation settlements.
Particularly, there is a new category of lawsuits pertaining to painkiller prescription by NFL team doctors. In 2014, a class of former NFL players (lead by former Chicago Bear Richard Dent) sued the NFL’s individual team doctors for their promulgation of painkiller and drug abuse in locker rooms. Ultimately, Dent’s case did not survive a motion to dismiss because of the NFL player’s consent to medical treatment vis-a-vis the collective bargaining agreement. Many of these claims were reiterated in a newly filed class action filed by former Dallas Cowboy legend, Mel Renfro. Interestingly, both Dent and Renfro were brought before the same judge: William Alsup. Renfro’s case, unlike Dent’s, survived the motion to dismiss stage.
So, what does any of this have to do with Ricky Williams and Marijuana?
Many people within the sports industry, myself included, foresee the possibility that the NFL decriminalizes the use of Marijuana in the near future. In theory, the league would remove Cannabinoid panels (which show the presence of Marijuana’s psychoactive element, THC) from player drug tests. Some of the reasons for this shift in attitude originate with Ricky Williams’ odyssey.
Historically, NFL players—most notably Williams– have used Marijuana as a way to combat pain without risking potential for abuse or addiction. Many Division I NCAA football teams and every NFL team prescribe painkillers to their players as a form of pain management to treat injuries and allow for a quick return to action. In theory, this is a common sense practice; but the culture of football, as evidenced by the recent lawsuits, is one that demands that players participate regardless of the severity of injury and has created a perpetual cycle of painkiller abuse in a large number of players.
Recently, former NFL superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson called attention to this issue:
I guess my first half of my career before they really, you know, before they were like looking over the whole industry, or the whole NFL, the doctors, the team doctors and trainers were giving [highly addictive painkillers Vicodin and Toridol] them out like candy, you know? If you were hurting, then you could get ‘em, you know. It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, ‘My ankle hurt,’ you know. ‘I need, I need it. I can’t, I can’t play without it,’ or something like that… if you were dependent on ‘em, they were readily available.
Johnson’s comments helped to reignite the debate about painkiller abuse by NFL players, aiding in the discussions around ‘legalizing Marijuana’ in the NFL. Former, current, and future players all realize the potential of Marijuana to help inject safety into an industry rich with occupational hazards.
Many in the industry believe that Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Eugene Monroe (who recently appeared on Andrew Brandt’s Business of Sports Podcast to discuss the issue) was recently released because of his views on Marijuana in the NFL. Monroe, easily the biggest medical Marijuana advocate in the NFL, opted to retire and fight the system rather than continuing to play. After his release, he stated:
On March 9, 2016, I became the first active NFL player to openly advocate for the use of cannabinoids (medical marijuana) to treat chronic pain and head injuries…. Some studies have also shown that cannabidinol (CBD)– one of the more than 100 cannabinoids found in Marijuana– may function as a neuroprotectant…. We need to learn more about this.
While Monroe’s advocacy is purposeful and targeted, some current and former NFL players are not as composed. For example, former Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver Andre Rison was quoted about his purchase of “Marijuana candies” for pain relief, but in the context of missing child support payments. This, obviously, undermines what Eugene Monroe and Ricky Williams are attempting to do.
The people who laughed at Ricky Williams, will now be looking up at the impact he leaves on football. Williams, who had an amazing NFL career and made millions of dollars, has carved an off the field legacy that is far more important than anything he did on the field.
In November, the former Heisman trophy winner will launch a franchise of Marijuana-friendly gyms beginning in San Francisco. Williams’ gym franchise, aptly named Power Plant Fitness, will allow users to consume traditional Marijuana and Cannabis-based products before and after their workouts.
As counterintuitive as that may seem, the science behind Marijuana is slowly proving Williams’ right. Beginning with initial studies in 2000, Marijuana was discovered to have “neuroprotective” properties; elements of the drug envelop, protect, and regenerate damaged parts of brain cells after traumatic injury. In 2014, a study by JAMA Internal Medicine, reported that states with access to medical Marijuana have 25% less deaths due to painkiller overdose; to quantify, about 1,700 people’s lives are not lost annually because they chose medical Marijuana over traditional painkillers.
On the other hand, the data behind NFL players and painkiller abuse is disturbing. In a study conducted by ESPN’s OutsideTheLines, 644 NFL players were asked about their use of painkillers during their careers: of the 52% of men who admitted to painkiller use, 71% also admitted that they either misused the medication as prescribed, or obtained the medication illegally. Sadly, of all players who admitted to use at some point, 20% reported that they had abused painkillers recently (within the past 30 days).
Today, the NFL is beginning to understand that it is a gladiator sport, potentially unsustainable in it’s current form. In the same vein that head-to-head collisions have been eliminated in the interests of player safety, the NFL may soon allow it’s players to legally consume Marijuana.
All of this points back to Ricky Williams: the former Miami Dolphin now carries a load bigger than any one running back can handle. The player who was once mocked and insulted for trying to “heal his body” could now play a big part in starting a movement to improve – and potentially save – players’ lives. While major media outlets write an article each week linking football and Marijuana, never forget the player who started this movement in the first place.