The NFL’s organizational structure, internal politics and general heft make it difficult for the league to quickly react to pressing issues related to their overall functionality.
So while Monday’s announcement—that the NFL and NFL Players’ Association have agreed to study marijuana as a vehicle for pain management and will require that every team appoint a “pain management specialist” and “behavioral heath team clinician,” it’s likely that this will be the start of another long slog.
What do we mean? Despite the prevailing thought that just about anything is healthier than ingesting large amounts of opioids to deal with pain stemming from football injuries, the NFL probably doesn’t want to come out and openly embrace marijuana. This was, after all, the same organization that panicked when called out by the nation’s most prominent Twitter user for allowing its players to exercise their first amendment rights. That led to policies, frantically cancelled policies, new committees and, finally, a crash landing somewhere near where the NFL should have been all along: Supporting its workforce and giving them the chance to better their communities.
Maybe the NFL will eventually—quietly—land on a policy similar to that of the NHL, where marijuana is tested for and logged, but more as a way to ensure that players who are abusing drugs get the help that they need (and aren’t held up as a pariah for a decision they may have made off the field to simply help them relax, manage pain or focus). A good primer on the NHL’s drug testing policy can be found here.
In the meantime, the hope is that the new staffers specializing in behavioral health and pain management, who will both be on board by the start of the season, will be blended into the decision-making processes. According to the NFLPA/NFL statement on Monday, there seems to be some medical summits on tap for this summer.
Like anything in the NFL, you cannot really view the news as a sudden revolution that will take hold immediately, but instead like the way any change happens at a major corporation. It’s going to take time, and it will likely be more subtle than expected. Five years from now, we may not be celebrating a landmark that changed the way American professional sports thinks about drugs and pain, but we may not be thinking about it at all, without the same windfall of players losing significant chunks of their career to a draconian testing process. Is that good enough?
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