The truest way to see the NFL is not before the game, when the helmets are shiny and the energy is high, but after the final whistle, when the bodies are bruised and the athletic tape is soiled with dirt and blood. Or at the practice facility the following day, when the players show up with crutches and walking casts, fingers in splints, arms in slings.
Pain is the singular constant of the NFL. Maintenance of that pain is as vital to players as mastering the read-option; whether through cortisone, painkillers or drugs and alcohol, they have always self-medicated to heal from the game that breaks their bodies. Which is why, more than any other sport, the NFL should lead the conversation on considering medicinal marijuana as a therapeutic alternative.
Medicinal marijuana is currently legal in 20 states, eight of which are home to NFL teams, and it is almost universally accepted in the medical community as a safe and effective pain reliever. Yet there appears to be no plan to reassess marijuana’s place on the NFL’s list of banned substances, and according to the NFLPA, no player in the league has received an exemption to use pot for medicinal purposes.
That likely won’t change tomorrow or even next year; the transition toward legitimacy is tricky. States are decriminalizing marijuana even as it remains illegal federally. Where marijuana can be obtained with a license, it still violates numerous federal drug-free-zone school statutes. If you’re caught boarding a plane with marijuana or putting it in the mail, you will likely face arrest, whether you have a license exemption or not.
Decriminalization is one thing; mainstream acceptance is something else. In a recent Gallup poll, for the first time, a majority of Americans (58 percent) said that the drug should be legal. Still, as much as the awareness of marijuana’s medicinal benefits is growing, the racial and cultural stigmas attached to it are far stronger, at least for now. (Remember Charles Oakley once saying that the NBA had “guys out there playing high every night,” or the ridicule snowboarding takes for being a “stoner sport.”) So marijuana appears destined to join Sudafed in the gray area of sport: a legal substance that athletes are banned from using.