On Monday, the NFL and NFL Players Association announced a joint venture that will explore the use of medical marijuana for pain management for its players.
It’s the first step in what’s sure to be a long process in the league relaxing its strict rules regarding marijuana use. And for former Cowboys defensive lineman David Irving, Monday almost served as an “I told you so” moment.
“Honestly I’m happy but I feel like I need some credit, though. Really,” the recently retired Irving tells the MMQB. “Everyone was telling me how crazy I am and, what, two months after I make that stand they’re now openly making changes and having discussions. I love it.”
The 6' 7" do-everything lineman tallied 12 1/2 sacks in 37 games over four years with the Cowboys, but he had trouble staying on the field. The NFL suspended him the first four games of the 2017 season for violating the league’s PED policy, then he missed the last four games due to a concussion. In 2018, the NFL again suspended him four games for violating the substance abuse policy, and he only played two games that season due to injuries.
On March 1, the league announced that Irving was suspended indefinitely for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. With Irving’s contract set to expire at the beginning of the new league year, it seemed highly unlikely that the Cowboys would re-sign him. So a few days later Irving did what he says he had wanted to do for more than a year: post a video, light up and quit football.
Many construed the Instagram video as Irving choosing a life of weed over professional football, but he says that wasn’t the case at all. This was about picking his well-being over football.
“It was the only way for me to get by,” Irving says of smoking marijuana. He estimates he could go through “an ounce in two days, or a day” during the football season.
“I’m a real human being. I have real problems,” Irving says. “I come from poverty. I have family issues. I have sole custody of my daughter. [Marijuana] helped me outside of football. The only way I could deal with football was with my medication, and they took it away from me. And you see what happened with football. They didn’t kick me off. I quit. I chose. Because it is that important to me and nobody’s going to tell me I have to take opioids over smoking marijuana.”
Irving says he suffered four or five concussions during his NFL career. He’s previously stated he believes football is the cause of multiple mental illnesses he says he suffers from, which he declined to discuss this week.
Since he quit football, Irving says he’s dropped 35 pounds, thanks to not having the stressors of the game, He also says his memory has improved and his headaches and migraines have subsided—turnarounds which he, of course, attributes to marijuana, which he’s been smoking since middle school.
“Since I was a young kid I’ve been exposed to it. I’ve been fine,” Irving says. “I always had a 3.0 [grade point average] or higher. In college [at Iowa State] I made the honor roll. I’ve never been in trouble with the law. It’s never been a problem and it’s been a part of normal, everyday life for me.”
Irving recalls an ankle injury he suffered leading up to last year’s Week 9 game against Tennessee as the time when he said no more to prescription pain killers. At a previous stint at a rehab center, Irving had seen the effects of pill addiction and knew he never wanted to go down that path.
“I didn’t like the way they made me feel,” Irving says about the time he was on 10 mg of Percocet. “Sure it helped with the pain, but it numbed you out completely. You sweat. Messes up your appetite. And just the long-term affects that it has.
“At the end of the day I had to choose: my potential earnings or my health. I chose my health.”
It’s widely understood that Irving would have been in line for a big payday had he, in the immortal words of Stephen A. Smith, been able to stay off the weeeeeeeed. He admits he knew the rules and knowingly broke them, trying to outsmart the system the league has in place.
But he says marijuana is his medicine for a violent game. Should smoking weed keep him from being on the field as one of the league’s elite and most versatile linemen?
“What other defensive tackle has a 7' 4" wingspan, a 40-inch vertical and the flexibility to do the splits?” Louis Bing, Irving’s agent, says. “I feel like it would be a shame for everyone, including the fans and the game itself, if a kid as talented as he is never got the opportunity to reach his potential due to a substance that undeniably is gaining acceptance in society. And a substance that he’s used to treat his pain his entire life.”
This week’s statement from the NFL and the players union didn’t include the word “marijuana,” but it’s widely understood that weed will be among the alternatives considered. The joint pain management committee will “establish uniform standards for club practices and policies regarding pain management and the use of prescription medication by NFL players as well as conduct research concerning pain management and alternative therapies.”
The league now mandates each team retains a behavioral health team clinician available to players for at least 8-12 hours per week. The joint committee will develop a prescription drug monitoring program and each team will appoint a pain management specialist.
While Irving believes the league is taking a step in the right direction, he pumps the brakes on praising the NFL too much. The NFL has the most strict rules regarding marijuana out of all major North American sports leagues, so relaxing those and getting in line with several states and changing American sentiment shouldn’t be celebrated too much. Also, it’s important to remember that these chances are coming as the nation is gripped in an opioid crisis and as states relax their laws on marijuana use.
“Let’s not make it seem like they’re giving us the world on a silver platter,” Irving says. “They’re giving us what we deserve. They’re doing the right thing. No one should be praised for doing the right thing.”
Since the Instagram video, Irving says life has been great. He says has a reality TV show debuting in September, he’s an executive producer for a Christian TV network and he’s in negotiations with multiple cannabis companies specializing in CBD. Irving believes there’s a real possibility he’ll make more money in these endeavors than he would have in football.
An undrafted player out of Iowa State in 2015, Irving saw base salaries totaling $4.49 million in his four years, according to OverTheCap. But due to suspensions he only got $3.58 million in cash. Irving says taxes and other fines ate into that, too. He estimates he made only $1.5 million in his four-year career.
“Even with the one-point-five I had, my mother’s still struggling. My dad’s still struggling. Hell I don’t even have a house in my name,” Irving says. “I didn’t change any lives. I have an opportunity to change lives and that’s the route I’m going to go.”
It’s hard to imagine Irving’s second career being more lucrative than football, but there’s little doubt it’d be safer. Asked if he sees himself returning to football, Irving battles with himself.
“As of now I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t want to say yes or no because it’s really tough. It all depends and there are so many variables to the decision. I would like to but ahh, I don’t know if I’d like to. I still haven’t decided yet. I’m undecided.”
Could he return to play without the use of marijuana? Does he want to?
“I mean I could. There are people who chose to do it,” Irving says. “Some people have no other options or outs and they have to do that. They have to settle for that. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to.”
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