The story of professional athletes wanting to be able to use cannabis for pain relief isn’t new – several have been speaking out for a couple years on how its use could help them deal with debilitating pain and maybe even reduce opioid use.
But, it’s been mostly retired athletes – who have nothing to lose now – speaking on behalf of their friends still playing.
Now, however, there’s a new spokesman taking up the fight who may have a little more on the line.
Mike James is still a football player.
Or at least he wants to be.
James is currently a free agent. He was on the Detroit Lions roster last year, but missed the entire season because of injury. He’s hoping to be picked up by a team next season. But he says he won’t play if he can’t continue to treat his battered body with cannabis.
James, who is just 27, submitted a “therapeutic use exemption” request to the NFL, seeking to be able to use cannabis despite it being on the league’s banned substances list. Of course, if they were to say yes, it would likely open the door to several other players – and, frankly, it doesn’t seem likely that the NFL is ready to completely open that door.
James was initially turned down in his request, but says he’s continuing to push the league to reconsider.
James broke his ankle in his rookie season with the Tampa Bay Bucs back in 2013. Like so many other football players, he took the opioid pain medications he was prescribed, but feared he was becoming addicted. He tried cannabis at the suggestion of his wife. He says it helped immensely.
James has already decided he’ll choose cannabis over football if it comes down to it.
“I have to choose my life over football,” James said in an interview during the Cannabis World Congress and Expo in New York this week.
He wants to continue the financially prosperous life he’s built. “I don’t want to stop playing,” he said. “It’s kind of who I am.”
But he’s more interested in wanting to live a long, healthy life.
Christian Okoye, a former star running back for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and Leonard Marshall, a star in the 1980s with the New York Giants, are just two of the many retired NFL players who have publicly said cannabis – at least the non-psychoactive compound CBD – should be legal in the league.
Okoye, who began using CBD oil after retiring, said he and his fellow retirees need to talk about it – because not many guys in James’ position are going to push for cannabis use by players, for fear of losing their income.
“If you’re still playing in the league, the NFL has everything on you,” Okoye said Saturday.
Marshall, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, and uses CBD because he has been told he has the trauma-induced brain disease CTE, said he isn’t sure that current players giving the NFL an ultimatum – choosing cannabis over playing – is going to work.
“They’re bigger than you,” Marshall said of the league. “They don’t need you, you need them.” Players who want to advocate, he said, need the platform and audience that the NFL provides.
That’s the irony, of course – once players aren’t in the league anymore, they don’t have much leverage to affect change. But when they’re in the league, they can’t stand up for changing the substance abuse rules without risking being forced to retire early.
The NFL could look to another sport that has opened up to let athletes use CBD: mixed martial arts. But it is only this year that the fight organization UFC has allowed its athletes to use it, so there isn’t a lot of information yet on how it will play out.
UFC is moving cautiously: it still prohibits fighters from using CBD within a 10-day window before a fight, noted fighter Liz Carmouche, who discussed CBD use on a panel with Okoye on Saturday. (Carmouche, who uses CBD oil to treat pain and inflammation, and to help her sleep and recover from workouts, would like to see CBD allowed all the time. The couple of weeks before a fight is when training is hardest she said. And, “when you need it most is fight day.”)
Okoye said he’s optimistic the NFL is slowly opening to the idea of allowing cannabis use, predicting the team owners will be ready in a few years.
The nature of the sport demands it if the league wants to protect the asset that brings in the money, the players, he said.
“Playing football is like having several accidents a day,” Okoye said. “These guys need something other than the opioids.”