Lesson of the Week: Medical Marijuana, Painkillers Could Be Next NFL vs. NFLPA Battleground

While the public has focused on the issue of traumatic brain injury and CTE, how painkillers are affecting the NFL is just as important and potentially scary.
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Pain management for players figures to be a hotly debated topic in the next NFL-NFLPA negotiation.

Pain management for players figures to be a hotly debated topic in the next NFL-NFLPA negotiation.

The issue of how recreational marijuana should be sanctioned and how medicinal marijuana fits into the football painkiller lexicon has been much discussed over the past half-decade. And so it was that the NFL reached out to the NFLPA on July 6 to explore spending a piece of their “joint contribution amount” on studying the drug and how it should be treated in pain management.

Would you be surprised to hear that this just became the stage for their next fight?

The MMQB has obtained the correspondence between the two sides—comprised of four letters, two from NFL general counsel Jeff Pash to the PA, and two from union lawyer Ned Ehrlich back to Pash—and it’s largely what you’d expect. Last week, we said if you give these guys a walking-on-eggshells topic (like domestic violence) then these guys will just fight on the eggshells, and this is more proof of it.

And that is on the heels of comments made by union president/Bengals tackle Eric Winston on the potential damage another work stoppage could do. (Though I’ll agree with Pro Football Talk in that Winston’s “dies out in 20 years” quote was blown way out of proportion.)

But it’s still important, and there’s a lesson in here to be learned. That lesson is this: While the public has focused on the issue of traumatic brain injury and CTE, there’s another topic out there that’s just as important and potentially scary, and that’s how painkillers are affecting the NFL.

In the letters, the NFLPA responded to the NFL’s inquiry on doing more research by asking for comprehensive data on how teams are distributing painkillers to players. The NFL declined to furnish the NFLPA with that data.

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“The request for prescription drug information in the last paragraph of your letter overlaps with the request for information sought in the NFLPA’s pending grievance on the subject,” Pash wrote. “To the extent that the grievance is pursued, we feel that it would be more appropriate to follow applicable procedures regarding discovery on these matters.”

Ehrlich’s responses said the union was “disappointed” and would pursue “all avenues to obtain this information.” And that’s where it was when I sat down with union chief DeMaurice Smith earlier this month. We’ll be rolling out a podcast of our full talk soon, but I can give you the overarching theme from that part of the discussion here pretty simply.

This isn’t going away. Why? A few of my takeaways:

1. The union will examine medical marijuana only as a piece of pain management. Smith at least seemed to imply the former is being used as a red herring to avoid confronting the latter. “I was thrilled to see the league interested in conversation about medical marijuana,” he said. “But based on the letters we wrote back to them, that’s looking at one issue as part of a much larger issue. I don’t know why the league’s chief medical officer would myopically focus on marijuana and not focus on the issue of chronic pain.”

2. As for change in the policy surrounding marijuana, Smith swore he wouldn’t be giving anything back if the league loosens the rules.I know there’s been the assumption the NFL could dangle marijuana in an effort to get something back. I asked Smith a few times about this. His position didn’t budge. “There’s not going to be a horse trade,” he said. “We’ve looked at the health and safety of our players in a zero-sum prism. I would no more engage in a discussion of stadium credits and marijuana than I would engage in a discussion on stadium credits and field safety or stadium credits and neutral sideline concussion experts. The minute you go down that road? You’re horse trading the health and safety of our players.” That would also imply that changing attitudes haven’t made recreational use a huge priority for the union.

3. Litigation is being considered. Smith circled back a couple times to accessing the information he asked for through the courts, which is something Pash referenced in his letter back to the union. “Dr. (Lawrence) Brown, who is our joint administrator of the drug program, so far has refused our request to turn that information to us,” Smith said. “And we believe that since we pay him and he’s our employee, he doesn’t have the right to turn to the NFL and ask their permission to abide by his contract with us. If that doesn’t get resolved, are we going to sue him over that issue? Most likely.”

4. The union has sought outside opinions in the area of pain management. Says Smith,“What does toradol do to your liver? Does it exacerbate brain bleeds? What’s the impact of taking multiple shots of these painkillers over multiple seasons or multiple weeks? Those are the issues, it seems to me, that we should be looking at in a macro way. The complaint that was unsealed out of California talked about literally thousands of doses of toradol and other painkillers being issued to players over a three-month period. When we sit down with doctors and experts in the field of opioids and pain treatment, and show them those numbers, they’re horrified. So to me the issue then becomes how dedicated are you too look at the macro issue.”

For its part, the league says its effort to reach out on medical marijuana was a result of four months of waiting—following Smith telling USA Today in March that the union was working to a proposal for changes that would reposition marijuana as a player health-and-safety issue.

NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart added that players have 365-day access to their own medical records, and so the union could’ve compiled the requested data on its own; and that the union was offered the data but was unwilling to sign a confidentiality agreement, choosing instead to file the aforementioned grievance. Also, Lockhart said there’s a meeting on the books for the coming weeks between its medical officials and those from the PA.

Based on all this, it seems like that one could get pretty heated. If it actually happens at all.