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The NFL's Stance on Marijuana is Adapting, But Major Changes Will Come Slowly

Plus, a quick thought on Bart Starr and his legacy in Green Bay.

Before a discussion of marijuana in the NFL, in light of a new committee formed to address pain management, I’d like to share a thought on the great Bart Starr, who passed away Sunday. I was fortunate enough to meet Bart several times, and am better for it.

I spent nearly a decade working with the Packers and living in Green Bay, and the name Bart Starr had a singular elevated reverence, a status that he shared alone. And although Starr was clearly a legendary figure on the field, my memories of him have nothing to do with his on-field exploits. Rather, it was his grace and kindness that have me smiling thinking of his impact.

Bart and his always-smiling wife, Cherry, came through our Packer offices at least once a year, whether to take in a game and/or work with their charity efforts that helped so many at-risk youths in the region. And when they visited, I was always struck by their warm affection toward everyone—and I mean everyone—they met, no matter what level of employee. They would take a sincere interest in and ask about each person’s interests, their family, their children, whatever that person wanted to talk about. And Bart wasn’t just making small talk; he asked follow up questions and was genuinely and sincerely interested. And he treated everyone, from Brett Favre to entry level interns, the exact same. I had to pinch myself sometimes in watching Bart and ask “Wait, this is Bart Starr? This nice guy interested in everyone but himself?”

And Bart did not leave his encounters there. He would write handwritten notes after visiting with someone, just saying he enjoyed meeting them and thanking them for what they do for the Packers. His two handwritten notes to me are among my most cherished keepsakes from my time in Green Bay.

Bart Starr will be missed and eulogized for his epic achievements on the field, but I will remember him as the person who treated everyone he met with infinite grace. I think the ultimate compliment about Bart is that after an encounter with him, that person felt better about himself or herself. I would watch people after Bart said goodbye to them; they were always smiling.

Bart Starr left a trail of happiness wherever he went. To me, that is as rich as legacy as one can have.

Marijuana as medicine

One of the best phrases I have ever heard that applies every day to business, and life in general, came from the movie Moneyball. In response to a changing environment in the business of scouting baseball players, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Bean (played by Brad Pitt) yells out: Adapt or die!” People, businesses and, for this context, leagues or teams that adapt best to a changing environment are often the most successful.

The NFL has rarely been an early adapter to changing environments in sports and society, preferring to remain on the sidelines until either another league adapts first (as the NHL and NBA did with sports betting) or are strongly urged to adapt by a governing body (as the NFL did when Congress scolded their treatment and monitoring of concussions).

Now the NFL has admirably announced initiatives in mental health and pain management, and is rightfully deserving praise. Time will tell, however, if the NFL adapts to a changing environment regarding marijuana and its societal tolerance and pain management benefits. My sense, as always with the NFL, is that they will certainly move in baby steps. Let’s examine.

Moving in the right direction

News came last week that the NFL and NFLPA, who have trouble agreeing that the sky is blue, have agreed on (1) mandating a mental health practitioner for each team and (2) forming a joint committee to study and assess pain management alternatives to the present use of painkillers.

As to the first initiative, mental illness and depression appear to be more prevalent—and less stigmatized—both in society and among professional athletes than ever. I know very few people (myself included) that haven’t found benefit from talking to a therapist. When I was with the Packers, we had a team psychologist/counselor who was available to see players and their family members upon appointment. In retrospect, I regret not mandating that she visit with each player at least once a year, even if the player felt forced to do so. A regular check-in on mental health is just as important as doing so for physical health.

As to the pain management initiative, nowhere mentioned in this release is the word “marijuana.” To me, however, this is what this initiative will be about: whether the NFL and NFLPA will relax or scrub the present policies toward marijuana use and allow players to use for medicinal purposes (suggesting that this will lead to full recreational use seems overly ambitious).

Former players and, we suspect, active players—as detailed by Chris Long last week—are certainly now using cannabis for pain relief. And beyond societal tolerance and anecdotal evidence, there has been legislative change: election day in 2016 saw Florida, North Dakota, Montana and Arkansas become new states legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, while California, Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada legalized marijuana for any use. The present tally has 22 states with a legal avenue for patients to access medical cannabis products. With hundreds of NFL players playing in those states and hundreds more living there in the offseason, the question has arisen for the past three years as to whether players will now be able to light up as they please.

The answer, in a word, is no. There is state law, and then there NFL-NFLPA law, and the latter governs.

Still prohibited, tested and punished

Despite continuing legislative (and societal) acceptance, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement—negotiated by the owners and the players—still tests players for marijuana and disciplines them for positive tests. Many fans (and media) erroneously compare and contrast penalties for marijuana use to those for things like deflated footballs or domestic violence. In the latter cases, the Commissioner has wide discretion; with marijuana use, it is collectively bargained. Indeed, the topic of marijuana use represents one of the only things the NFL and NFLPA have agreed on since the negotiation of the 2011 CBA.

The two sides agreed to a revision that raised the threshold required to test positive for marijuana from 15 nanograms of THC per milliliter to 35 nanograms (for comparison’s sake, Major League Baseball uses a threshold of 50 nanograms, and the World Anti-Doping Agency uses a threshold of 150 nanograms). The relaxation of the threshold for marijuana, such that it was, answered player concerns for invoking a positive test due to second-hand smoke. The NFL, however, did extract a concession for that, with a revised policy that now includes testing for HGH.

As to the logistics and timing of marijuana testing in the NFL, this has been much publicized: It is not a drug test; it is an intelligence test. Players who have not previously tested positive are only tested once a year, and only during a four-month offseason window that begins on April 20 (yes, 4/20, maybe the NFL and NFLPA do have a sense of humor) and August 9.

Pain medicine

We will now monitor the progress of the pain management committee as we monitor how marijuana is dealt with in the upcoming CBA negotiations. The NFL and Commissioner Goodell have used the phrase, “We’ll follow the science,” often in their dealing with concussions, and they will also “follow the science” on cannabis and marijuana for pain management.

Medicinal use of marijuana has had some proven success in multiple studies and, of course, anecdotally by former players. The legislative traction mentioned above certainly did not come without state legislatures vetting “the science,” especially juxtaposed against the long-term dangers of opioids, the traditional and accepted form of pain management by NFL teams.

We’ve seen many NFL players advocate for the use of marijuana—Eugene Monroe, Jake Plummer and Ricky Williams among the first, and now Chris Long, Kyle Turley and David Irving more recently. It will be interesting to see if their words are heeded by the NFL and NFLPA in their deliberations, both on the committee and in future bargaining. I see potential for promising results, but temper my enthusiasm and have doubts as to whether the league is prepared for such change.

Business first

When looking for an example of the NFL coming to terms with acceptance of a practice that was formerly taboo, there is fresh evidence with sports betting. The NFL’s reluctant acceptance of sports betting came only after (1) the NFL—and all other sports leagues and the NCAA—lost a case to New Jersey in the United States Supreme Court decision that now permits states to implement sports betting, and (2) other leagues were first movers in this space, whether placing a team in Las Vegas (the NHL) or entering into sponsorship agreements with casinos (NBA, NHL and MLB). My sense now is that the NFL may sit on the sidelines as long as it can on marijuana, waiting for another league—perhaps the NBA, under progressive commissioner Adam Silver—to first formally dip a toe into the medicinal marijuana waters.

Beyond societal and legislative pressure, there is obviously the business side of this issue. In other words, NFL owners—or at least some of them—will certainly ask this question: “Why should we give up our marijuana restrictions without extracting something meaningful in return?

While the NFLPA has said, and will continue to say, that a health and safety issue such as this should not be a subject of bargaining, the NFL has never agreed with that logic. If we know one thing about NFL owners, it is this: They are relentless negotiators; health and safety or not. An issue that has been destigmatized in society and state law is still an issue for which the NFL has leverage heading into the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations. And, of course, the union, with very little in the way of bargaining power, has a long wish list of priorities that likely exceed that of relaxation of marijuana testing.

Thus, while NFL medical staff will “follow the science” on marijuana, NFL negotiators will, as always, follow the money. Stay tuned…

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