The National Football League sets the pace for professional sports. It has long held the title of the most popular sports league in America, and the Super Bowl — in all its pyrotechnic glory — is the biggest event in sports.
But some say the league comes up short when it comes to drug policy.
The current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA expires after next season. With more U.S. states legalizing cannabis and hemp-derived CBD now federally legal, state laws may pressure the NFL to evolve its drug policy.
“I’m convinced that you should see an adjustment in the NFL’s policy related to this come the next CBA,” says Joseph Hanna, a partner of Goldberg Segalla, where he specializes in sports and entertainment law.
In December, natural cannabinoids (e.g. THC and CBD) were removed from Major League Baseball’s “drugs of abuse” list. The changes bring cannabis more in line with how the league treats alcohol.
Cannabis is also not a banned substance in the National Hockey League. Players who are found to have notably high levels of a narcotic or cannabinoid in their system get a phone call from a league doctor, who may recommend a personalized treatment plan. Neither the NHL or the NHLPA are notified if the player decides to start treatment.
And while the NBA does test and punish players for cannabis use during the season, league commissioner Adam Silver has said he supports medical marijuana and that conversations about changing the league’s substance policy are underway, despite the collective bargaining agreement not being up for renewal until 2024.
“We should follow the science,” Silver told Bleacher Report in 2018. “This is not an ethical issue for me. It’s not a moral issue for me. I obviously see what’s happening in the states around America.”
By contrast, the NFL’s approach seems stuck in the “reefer madness” era.
Four players, David Irving, Josh Gordon, Martavis Bryant, and Randy Gregory, each of them in their 20s, have been handed indefinite suspensions for violating the league’s drug policy within the last two years.
It only takes one failed or missed test to be placed in the NFL’s Stage Two intervention program, which results in increased testing for two years. Fail again, and a sliding scale of fines, suspensions and forfeited game cheques follows, increasing in severity for every infraction.
Cannabis as a bargaining chip
Hanna says the NFL could be lagging behind on cannabis for two reasons: The conservative nature of NFL owners, and the fact the league’s drug policy could be used as leverage in the upcoming negotiations.
“The NFL owners and the NFLPA are always looking for bargaining chips,” he says. “With the CBA on the horizon, this will be something on the table that the owners will say ‘Look it, if you want X, we want Y.’”
Antwan Staley, an NFL reporter with Athlon Sports and the Riot Report, where he covers the Carolina Panthers, agrees that change is on the horizon for the league.
“I definitely think marijuana is something that’s going to come into play for the new CBA simply because a lot of things have changed since the last CBA,” he says. “It’s not as big of a deal as it was, maybe a decade ago. The NFL has been stubborn about it. They definitely have it get with the times, other sports are adapting and changing the rules as they go, which they should, especially considering what’s happened over the last few years.”
Nine of the NFL’s 32 teams now play in states where adult-use cannabis is legal. Sixteen teams play in states where medical cannabis is legal. NFL players, much like other Americans, overwhelmingly support the legalization of cannabis. Rob Gronkowski, formerly one of the games biggest stars, has said he would consider coming out of retirement if the NFL allowed CBD products.
Still, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been hesitant to adjust the league’s drug policy, citing concerns that cannabis could be addictive and harmful.
Cannabis vs. opioids
In a league where players are put through immense physical pain for profit and are routinely shot up with painkillers like Toradol to get back on the field, that explanation falls flat.
In a 2016 NFL survey conducted by ESPN, almost 60 per cent of players said they were concerned about the long-term effects of chemical painkillers and 42 percent said they had teammates they believed were addicted to painkillers. Sixty-one per cent of players surveyed said fewer of their colleagues would take injections for pain management, like Toradol, if cannabis were an option.
The potential to curb reliance on painkillers is one of the major benefits of changing the league’s approach to cannabis, Hanna says.
“I think that marijuana is a great alternative to opioids and the catastrophic opioid epidemic that has hit the United States,” he says, speaking from his office in New York. “We’ve seen a number of pro athletes abuse opioids and sadly it has led to a number of deaths. I think marijuana is a great alternative and a safer alternative.”
In 2014, the NFL did slightly relax its cannabis policy. It adjusted the threshold for what registers as a positive cannabis test from 15 nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood or urine, to 35 nanograms per millilitre. For comparison’s sake, the standard set by the World Anti-Doping Agency is 150 nanograms of THC per millilitre.
Since then, little else has changed when it comes to cannabis and the NFL. The next CBA should fix that. But Hanna warns there is a lot of ground to cover, from revenue splits, to the length of the regular season schedule, to player health and safety, and beyond. Change won’t come easily.
“It will be tense,” he says. “This isn’t just a regular negotiation here. You’re not negotiating over the rights of a lemonade stand — you’re negotiating over a multibillion-dollar business.”