Off the Grid: Putting NFL’s approach to marijuana use in the spotlight

0:52 | NFL
Broncos, Panthers bring old-school defensive approach to Super Bowl 50
Tuesday January 26th, 2016

On Jan. 10, Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones was admitted to Norwood Hospital near Boston after he walked to the Foxborough police station to complain of ill effects from the ingestion of synthetic marijuana. Jones brought himself to the station that morning and was taken to the hospital after the police classified it as a medical emergency. He was back lifting weights at the team facility the next morning, and he played all but six snaps in New England’s playoff run, apparently without any ill effects. Bill Belichick and team president Jonathan Kraft each said that they were happy with the way Jones handled the situation, Belichick added that nothing is more important to him than the health of his players, and the Patriots moved on ... at least until the Broncos ended their season in the AFC Championship Game.

On Oct. 14, 2015, Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman thought he was O.K. to drive after reportedly ingesting synthetic marijuana. If what has been prepared in a 101-page report by the Bellevue, Wash. police department is true, Coleman definitely wasn’t. Witnesses told local police that Coleman was driving 60 mph in a 35 mph zone, swerved into the center lane of the road on which he was driving and then swerved back, hitting the rear of another car. Coleman was described as “delirious and aggravated” and “incoherent,” and allegedly fled the scene of the crash barefoot after being helped from his car. Coleman later told police that he had ingested synthetic marijuana, and on Monday, the police turned the investigation over to the King County Prosecuting Attorney's office, recommending that Coleman be charged with felony hit-and-run and vehicular assault.

Synthetic marijuana is not actually marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, synthetic marijuana consists of “man-made mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked (herbal incense) or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices (liquid incense).”

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Synthetic marijuana is marketed as “safe,” though it’s anything but. It’s part of a burgeoning sub-strata of manufactured psycho-active substances that mirror the effects of naturally grown substances. Those who have smoked synthetic marijuana and have subsequently been hospitalized have complained of symptoms ranging from extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia and hallucinations to rapid heart rate, vomiting, violent behavior and suicidal thoughts. Synthetic marijuana is also believed to be far more addictive than actual marijuana. The manufacture of synthetic marijuana is unregulated, so basically people who use it are taking whatever they can get and hoping for the best.

So, why would anyone, including NFL players, subject themselves to this? Even without knowing the ratio of players using it for recreational purposes to those using it for therapeutic ones, a large part of synthetic marijuana’s appeal is the belief, correct or not, that its will pass through drug tests where regular marijuana will not. And though actual marijuana has become far more widely legal and regulated over the last few years, the NFL has maintained its classification as a part of its substance abuse category.

It remains illegal in many states in which the NFL operates, but cannabis has been shown in various studies to help people in two areas of common concern to every NFL player—pain management and the effects of head trauma. In 2013, Professor Yosef Sarne of Tel Aviv University’s Adelson Center for the Biology of Addictive Diseases at the Sackler Faculty of Medicine published research indicating that “even extremely low doses of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol]—around 1,000 to 10,000 times less than that in a conventional marijuana cigarette —administered over a wide window of one to seven days before or one to three days after injury can jumpstart biochemical processes which protect brain cells and preserve cognitive function over time.”

In 2010, Dr. Mark Ware, an assistant professor of anesthesia and family medicine at McGill University in Montreal, conducted a clinical trial in which cannabis and placebos were used to assess the drug’s use in pain management, specifically, the kind of chronic nerve pain common to those who play football over an extended period of time. Ware said that his study proved the analgesic and medical value of cannabis as a pain-management tool, and though there’s still more research to be done, one might imagine that a league with no compunction handing its players large quantities of more dangerous painkillers over time would want to investigate the possible use of marijuana—especially since it’s obvious that some of its players are opting for dangerous synthetic versions of the drug.

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The league has been fairly quiet on the subject. In January 2014, Roger Goodell was asked about the medicinal use of marijuana, and said, “I’m not a medical expert. We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that,” Goodell said. “Our medical experts are not saying that right now.”

Whatever that means. What it most likely means in the near future is that NFL players will continue to use more dangerous versions of a drug that’s become far less of a legal and ethical issue recently, because the NFL will not move forward in its own perceptions of what’s best for those players. One would hope for more progress, but given the league’s history in caring for its players, one would also do well to be highly skeptical.

I’ve talked with former offensive tackle Kyle Turley about his own use of medical marijuana, and he’s been very outspoken about how it’s changed his life for the better. Turley was in a dark place when he was addicted to more traditional painkillers, and now, according to him, he’s not.

On Tuesday, the news came out that former Giants safety Tyler Sash, who died at the age of 27 last September due to an accidental overdose of painkillers, was diagnosed with CTE. Might medical marijuana have helped him with both issues—the head trauma that marked the latter parts of his life, and the pain that predicated the need for all those pills? We don’t know yet. The NFL doesn’t seem to want to be proactive on this issue, and it’s too late for Sash and those like him.

Meanwhile, players like Chandler Jones and Derrick Coleman, though they’re obviously wholly responsible for what they put in their bodies, are waving in the breeze. At this moment in time, they appear to be part of a league that treats the use of a substance that could help them as a punishable offense. Expecting Goodell and his current medical cronies to switch their view on this may be a fool’s errand.

Q&A: Amy Trask

Eric Risberg/AP

Amy Trask, currently an NFL analyst for CBS Sports and the CBS Sports Network, was a groundbreaking presence in the NFL during her 30 years as the CEO of the Oakland Raiders. As always, she’s got a compelling and intelligent voice in current league matters, and it’s always a pleasure to speak with her. This time, we started the conversation with the subject of Kathryn Thomas, recently hired by the Bills as a special teams quality control coach, and the league’s first female coach. Amy wrote eloquently about Thomas’s hire for last Friday. You can listen to our entire conversation on this week’s Audibles Extra podcast, and here are a few excerpts.

Doug Farrar: When we look forward, do you see a time when the NFL would use medical marijuana intelligently and responsibly for the good of the players?

Amy Trask: I hope so. ... I’m certainly not condoning or suggesting that it’s a good idea for anyone to use any substance and get behind the wheel of a car. Putting that aside, and talking about responsible use of real, and not synthetic, marijuana, this is something that should be advanced and studied and evaluated, and then used if it can help. As I understand, the studies show it can help in two regards: pain management, and the linkage between the use of marijuana and perhaps the issue of head trauma.

It just strikes me as absolutely nutty that one would say ... Let’s say that one of us has a loved one that’s in extreme, extreme pain. Would you rather that person smoke a little bit of marijuana, or take Toradol? Some heavily addictive narcotic, like Oxycontin? The stigma against marijuana is antiquated, and we’re learning that it can address pain and head trauma in a way that we are now addressing with extremely addictive narcotics, then I think it’s a simple choice, and I really and truly hope that the league walks away from this aversion to marijuana for historic reasons.

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DF: You wrote a great piece for SI about the Bills hiring Kathryn Smith. She’s someone who has worked her way up, has worked with Rex Ryan for years ... she’s been in NFL front offices longer than Paul DePodesta, and Paul DePodesta is running the Browns, and people don’t seem to have a problem with that. We get the same old blah blah blah about players being unable to respect women at this level. You worked with players, coaches, scouts, etc. for 30 years. Did you ever experience disrespect from a player based solely on your gender?

AT: It always struck me during my career that if I were to spend my time, or to waste my efforts, thinking about gender issues, then I was doing just that—I was wasting my time and effort and energy. And my feeling was that if other people were concerned with my gender, let them waste their time, effort and energy. Let them think about it. Why should I waste one moment being concerned with my gender? I don’t want to create a rosy picture that I never encountered any difficulties during my career, but we all encounter challenges. We’re all tested, whether those tests are gender-related or otherwise. But the group of individuals that was uniformly unconcerned with my gender were players, and I believe that’s because players are conditioned to judge one another based on merit.

If you’re the left guard, you’re looking at that left tackle and wondering, “Can he block his man, or do I need to go help him?” Players evaluate one another. “Can you block your man? Can you cover your man? Can you do your job? Can you help this team?” Over the course of my career, that is the way players evaluated me. Was I doing my job?

DF: When you look at the negative perceptions of Cam Newton and his celebrations, there are some who will say it’s old-school vs. new-school, but I would argue that it’s something insidious. As someone who has seen both publicly and privately how athletes operate, what are your thoughts about Cam Newton and how he’s handled his ascent?

AT: Well, I don’t know that it’s old vs. new. I remember all those years in the AFC West, the late, great Junior Seau, who we all miss ... he would stop someone on third down, and he would do his Pineapple Dance. Or his Coconut Dance, I’m embarrassed that I don't remember ... it made me so mad as a competitor, but what made me mad was not that he was doing it. It was that we didn’t stop him. What I would say to people who were bothered by it was, “You know what? All we needed to do was to block him, and then, no dance.”

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I reference Junior lovingly and respectfully, and missing him, but the point in that is that I don’t know that it’s old vs. new. And I don’t know that ... if you don’t like athletes being demonstrative, at least be consistent. If you’re bothered by what Cam Newton’s doing, you should be bothered by Aaron Rodgers’s Discount Double-Check belt thing. And if you’re bothered by what Cam Newton’s doing, you should arguably be bothered by those theatrical, over-the-top spikes of Rob Gronkowski’s. So, what is it that calls attention to Cam more than others, and people have a lot of ideas. I’m not bothered by it—I’m not bothered by any of the things I’ve just described. The only time it’s bothered me is when I’ve been the team on the other side.

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Perhaps the most compelling matchup in Super Bowl 50 is the battle between Denver’s pass rush and Cam Newton's ability to make plays under pressure. Based on the numbers this season, if the Panthers see the same defense that sacked Tom Brady four times and hit him 20 times in the AFC Championship Game, Carolina’s chances to win decrease pretty seriously. As impressive as Newton’s been this year, he’s a very different player when facing pressure. It’s one of his few weaknesses, but it’s a prominent one. Newton has completed 51% of his passes under pressure this year in the regular season and playoffs, with 35 sacks, six touchdowns and six interceptions.

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Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are the stars of that Broncos’ pass rush, but don’t overlook ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson, taken by Denver in the same 2012 draft. Only Philly’s Fletcher Cox had more quarterback hurries this season than Jackson’s 45, and only J.J. Watt had more batted passes than Jackson’s seven. Wolfe, suspended the first four games of the 2015 season for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, amassed 44 stops in just 671 regular-season snaps—only Watt and Cox beat those numbers, and it took them far more snaps to do it. The Panthers have a pretty estimable interior offensive line, but they’ll find themselves seriously tested in this game. 

History Lesson: “The miracle has happened!”

AP Photo

The Broncos are about to enjoy their eighth Super Bowl appearance, which will tie them with the Steelers and Cowboys for the most in NFL history. Not bad for a franchise that came into the AFL in 1960 and didn’t have a winning season until 1973, and no playoff appearances until 1977, their first Super Bowl year. The ’77 Broncos went 12–2 in the regular season with a ball-control offense and the furious 3–4 “Orange Crush” defense designed by the great Joe Collier. If they wanted to make to Super Bowl XII, however, the Broncos would have to get through quite the gauntlet in the AFC playoffs. They faced the Steelers in the divisional round, then the Raiders in the championship game.

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Denver dispatched Pittsburgh 34–21 in the divisional round, and then it was a matchup with the Raiders, who hadn't lost in Denver since 1962. It was a typically tough game: The Broncos went up 14–3 in the third quarter when Jon Keyworth bulled in for a one-yard touchdown, but the Raiders roared back with two touchdowns from Ken Stabler to Dave Casper. Stabler had to maintain his offense without receiver Fred Biletnikoff, who suffered a shoulder injury in the first half, and the Raiders failed to defend receiver Haven Moses, who caught two touchdown passes of his own.

The most controversial play of the game happened in the third quarter. Morton handed the ball to fullback Rob Lytle at the Oakland one-yard line, and Lytle appeared to fumble. The Raiders appeared to recover, but the officials saw it differently. Head linesman Ed Marion didn’t see the fumble, and Denver maintained possession. Keyworth scored on the next play. The league later admitted the error, and for the Raiders and their fans, the Lytle fumble that wasn’t was the knife-in-the-gut call between the Immaculate Reception and the Tuck Rule. For Al Davis, it was yet more proof that the league was out to get him due to his history of disputes with Pete Rozelle.

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“Anything I say is going to sound like sour grapes,” said Raiders head coach John Madden after Denver won, 20-17. “Sure, I felt we should have had the ball. But a game isn’t any one thing like that. We wound up a little short, give Denver credit. It’s a 60-minute proposition; it doesn’t boil down to one play or person.”

Broncos fans of the era will always remember the great Bob Martin’s call on KOA Radio at the end of the game: “The miracle has happened! The Broncos are going to the Super Bowl!”

Denver was demolished by Dallas in that Super Bowl, but the 1977 season was the franchise’s first step to national respectability after so many down years and set the path the team has followed in most of the seasons since.

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