In November of 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) launched a raid on what was called three random NFL teams. What were these intrepid agents searching for? Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), human growth hormone (HGH), mountains of blow or bales of cannabis? Actually, it was none of these said items that have bestowed a mountain of fines and season upon season of game suspensions. The DEA was looking for prescription painkillers.

Pain Problems

What triggered this “random” search was a lawsuit put forth by more than 1,300 former players claiming that NFL training staffs supplied them with sleeping pills such as Ambien and the painkiller Toradol. Training staffs are not permitted to dispense prescription drugs; only physicians and nurse practitioners are allowed to do so. Headlining this lawsuit are players like Jim McMahon and Richard Dent who played for the storied 1985 Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears.

The NFL has engaged in what has been called an Unholy Alliance with doctors and marketing. As of 2015, 23 teams (the NFL will not confirm this) had struck up sponsorships with various medical institutions to be the official healthcare providers of individual teams. How this works is these institutions make bids to the franchises that include seven-figure dollar amounts and reduced-cost medical care, and the franchises in turn market the provider as the official healthcare provider of said franchise. What’s the problem here? Now that big dollars and reputations are at stake, the integrity of the doctors will be tested and undoubtedly compromised for some. When big time sports money and fame come into play, the Hippocratic Oath becomes more of a guideline than an oath to some physicians. In 2004, then-Atlanta Falcons team doctor Andrew Bishop told the New York Times that he would resign if the team entered a hospital sponsorship deal: “It compromises you as a physician. The perception is that if this individual was so eager to do this he’s willing to pay to do it, then he’s going to do whatever management wants to keep the job he paid for.”

One survey conducted of former players for an ESPN Outside the Lines expose found that 52 percent used prescription pain medications during their careers, and 71 percent of those players said they abused them. More than 60 percent of those surveyed said they received the drugs from someone other than a doctor. This included trainers and doctors.

This is where we get to the murky part of the NFL’s drug policy and how it handles and classifies these medications. In 2014, Haloti Ngata, then of the Baltimore Ravens, was suspended for testing positive for Adderall, a stimulant drug used to treat severe attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Apparently, this is the drug du jour for NFL players as of late, and I’m not convinced that players use it for playbook study and game film sessions. Adderall in these cases “masks fatigue, masks pain, increases arousal—like being in The Zone. It increases alertness, aggressiveness, attention and concentration. It improves reaction time, especially when fatigued. Some think it enhances hand-eye coordination. Some believe it increases the mental aspects of performance,” said Dr. Gary Wadler, former chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency Prohibited List Committee, to the Seattle Times back in 2012. The NFL lacks any transparency for any drug considered “socially acceptable”; these drugs are simply listed as PED suspensions. The NFL with all these PED-related suspensions, lawsuits and DEA drug raids seems to have a prescription drug problem that is not being addressed.

The Cannabis Conundrum

When it comes down to cannabis in the NFL, it is classified as a “substance of abuse,” which includes cocaine, heroin and any other substance Uncle Sam deems a true danger to our morality. The NFL in recent years has changed the testing results for cannabis, i.e., higher levels of THC are now allowed before triggering a fine and suspension. We will get back to that nugget later. However, the NFL continues to hand out steady suspensions and fines to their players.

First, let’s put cannabis into some context using the public at large. According to a 2104 Pew survey, 49 percent, or nearly half of Americans, say they have tried cannabis, and 12 percent in the past year. Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S., according to the annual National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). In the published findings for 2012, the survey found that 18.9 million Americans 12 and older (7.3 percent) had consumed cannabis in the prior month. There may be a fair amount of those surveyed who are fibbing about their usage, so the margin of error might skew slightly higher. Let’s move on to usage in the NFL.

Mike Freeman on The Bleacher Report interviewed 16 anonymous NFL players about cannabis usage, and 15 of the 16 said they utilized cannabis—mostly for medical reasons. That suggests 94 percent of players are smoking cannabis, which I would argue is 99.999999-percent unlikely. Freeman also interviewed former Falcons running back Jamal Anderson who claimed: “When I played, 40 to 50 percent of the league used it.”

Anderson stays in regular contact with players now, and he believes the number of NFL players who use cannabis has grown significantly since he was a Falcon. He’s not alone. Current players say cannabis use in the sport is extensive, with many using the drug to deal with the ramifications of head trauma. One player said in an interview that he believes smoking cannabis helped prevent him from attempting suicide.

“It’s at least 60 percent now,” Anderson said. “That’s bare minimum. That’s because players today don’t believe in the stigma that older people associate with smoking it. To the younger guys in the league now, smoking weed is a normal thing, like having a beer. Plus, they know that smoking it helps them with the concussions.”

When we read Anderson’s assessment, his analysis has lots of truth to it, especially from a statistical viewpoint. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research center bears out Anderson’s view of the growing acceptance of cannabis by younger generations. It shows drastic differences in views by age, e.g., 70 percent of people under age 30 support legalization. The telling figures, however, are about cannabis punishment as Americans overwhelmingly (76 percent) say they are against jail time for possession. Nevertheless, the NFL’s cannabis policies still ape the antiquated policies of our federal government when it comes to policing and enforcing cannabis usage.

The NFL mostly resists changes to their ridiculous “substance of abuse” system to placate the owners, who largely think that cannabis is a dangerous “substance.” When you look at the roster of owners, most are old white dudes who are quite conservative and still buy the Reefer Madness and Nixonian War on Drugs narrative. What remains to be seen is if the NFL has some unwritten agreement with the NFLPA to lighten the amount of testing and suspensions levied by the NFL. Let’s face it, if the numbers of usage are correct, it would be difficult for any team to field a complete squad.

Wherefore Art Thou Integrity?

This brings us to the High Priest of Hypocrisy himself, Roger Goodell. The commissioner has completely fumbled throughout his tenure when it comes to dishing out punishment. Goodell never wavers when it comes to handing out fines and suspensions for “substances of abuse,” but crimes like assault and domestic violence are downplayed by the league, and punishments are dealt out arbitrarily to offenders and only because the media spotlight draws out public ire and disgust. This lack of punishment guidelines has been killing them in courts due to lack of due process and precedent. Consider that Ray Rice got a two-game punishment for knocking out his fiancé in an elevator, while Greg Hardy gets 10 games for domestic violence, which gets reduced to four, and Adrian Peterson gets an indefinite suspension that the courts then overturn completely.

DEA raids and lawsuits would lead us to believe that the NFL has a prescription medication problem. The NFL keeps this under wraps, and for the most part, the media has played ball. The rub here is that we now know that prescription drugs are America’s fasting-growing drug problem with more than 16,000 deaths in 2010 alone. However, cannabis is still a main villain to the NFL, even though there are no overdoses attributed to cannabis. Furthermore, there are now studies that show prescription painkillers are the main gateway drug. This latest addiction has led to a rise in heroin deaths by 45 percent in the last five years.

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently did a study to see how cannabis laws affected painkiller overdoses, with the premise being that cannabis was available to treat pain. Researchers looked at medical cannabis laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between 1999 and 2010. During that time, just 13 states had medical marijuana laws in place.

“We found there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law,” lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber said. In 2010 alone, he said, states with medical marijuana laws had approximately 1,700 fewer overdose deaths than would have been expected based on the numbers before such laws were passed.

So the NFL can ride positive public opinion into treating its players with an all-natural painkiller that won’t leave these guys jonesing for something more lethal like heroin. The painkiller addiction is a true public health crisis, while cannabis is merely a century-old red herring. Unfortunately, just like they handled the massive concussion case brought by thousands of former players, the NFL will likely continue to deny this crisis.

The most-telling statement that revealed how much of a joke the NFL is when it comes to their drug policies was during the Deflategate court hearings. Goodell and the NFL spent more than $30 million-plus to prosecute Tom Brady for allegedly releasing a small amount of air from game balls. Goodell claimed they pursued this costly case in order to protect the integrity of the league. That’s not even the truly laughable part of this whole story. When Judge Richard Berman asked what equivalent crime he based his punishment on, Goodell said it was equivalent to taking steroids and a masking agent. Judge Berman subsequently snickered. The Deflategate circus coupled with the inept handling of domestic abuse cases suggest the NFL’s definition of integrity is thoroughly warped. The NFL needs to get out in front of this painkiller problem, quit acting like a drunk in denial and acknowledge its problem.

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