Even as the wider world has been gradually rethinking its approach to marijuana as not only a potentially invaluable medical resource, but also a largely harmless recreational drug, the sporting world as-a-whole has remained pretty much unanimously closed to the subject. 

For the thousands of Americans who have rethought their position on marijuana in recent years, as its positive influence spread into more states than not – and, of course, the many thousands of Americans who were already proponents of its use – these rules seem dated and predicated on old misconceptions and taboos but, even still, pretty concrete. 

Even in recent months, and as we move closer still to major changes for states as geographically disparate as New Mexico and Connecticut, the sporting world in general has remained largely defined by its no tolerance policies toward marijuana – even when used medicinally. Most recently, its use led to one athlete’s disqualification from the Olympics. 

The NFL and Marijuana, Pre-2020

The NFL has, for the past year or so, been a little more open to change. Its relationship with marijuana was rocky all through the 2000s and early 2010s, and culminated in 2018 when Mike James filed the first official exemption from the league’s rules. His exemption was famously denied, shining a spotlight on the strange contradiction made by sports: opioids were (still) in, and marijuana was (still) out – even as myriad promising players like James retired due to injury. 

By 2020, however, our understanding of marijuana’s benefits reached a highpoint. A new agreement was formed: testing periods were reduced, the threshold was raised by more than 400% (from 35ng/ml to 150 ng/ml), and bans were replaced with fines. These changes come into effect at the start of training camp this year, and, while a little slow coming, have created a somewhat fairer playing field for football players.

But the NFL gradually coming round to the idea that the use of marijuana is not harmful to the sport itself isn’t enough. Some of the most common reasons for a medical marijuana prescription in the US coincide with some of the most common afflictions for NFL players – afflictions which can, and frequently do, lead to early retirement and/or opioid addiction. 

Until now, the NFL’s new outlook on marijuana felt like a concession – an acceptance that times are changing, and that they need, in some form or another, to ‘get with’ those times. The pressures of pain management for NFL players, and of a country in which both medical and recreational use is fast-becoming the norm. 

Similarly, mounting research into the topic of marijuana is making it more and more difficult for sporting leagues to claim that we simply do not know enough about marijuana and THC blood levels to feel justified in loosening the reigns on athletes. 

Now, however, a new interest in the cutting edge of research into marijuana could signal an unprecedented change in priority for NFL officials. 

The NFL’s New Interest in Research

The NFL, in conjunction with the National Football League Players’ Association, announced on June 8th that they would be accepting applications from researchers investigating marijuana, CBD and other non-opioid pain management therapies. These applications are for up to $1 million in grants, which will help to spur researchers on in their fight for data-driven conclusions. 

This signals a major change. Beyond loosening the restrictions surrounding any and all marijuana use among NFL athletes, this seems genuinely progressive. It is one thing to drop the crusade against this substance – another thing entirely to begin to listen to, accept, and become a proponent of the many potential benefits of marijuana use, particularly among star athletes. 

The benefits are manifold. An entity as prominent as the NFL will continue to drive a widespread, changing sentiment toward marijuana – for, while acceptance has been remarkably fast-growing, it remains a tricky subject in some parts of the country. 

In a practical sense, athletes may finally be able to make use of this valuable treatment, and avoid both acute and chronic use (and the high potential for abuse) of opioids and other highly addictive pain killers. 

And, from a wholly scientific standpoint, any opportunity to boost funding and widen the parameters for researchers is invaluable. 

Thus, while a $1 million grant from the NFL is, relatively speaking, a peppercorn amount in the grand scheme of things, the attention it is bringing to this invaluable subject – not to mention the promise for a far more accepting future for athletes – signals a positive turning point in the sporting world.

Photo by: Richard T