The NFL Should Be Investing In Marijuana Research If It Wants To Survive
The National Football League has survived more public relations crises in the past year than most multi-billion dollar organizations endure in a decade. Yet the greatest existential threat to the NFL — if not to the existence of football itself — still remains Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or “CTE.”
As former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau’s documented struggle with CTE demonstrated, the presentation of symptoms that occurs in those stricken with the disease are not always readily apparent. Concussions and sub-concussive impacts on the brain cause the rapid brain decay that is a precursor to CTE. Eventually, the lobes of the brain blacken and lose density—causing depression, early on-set dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and eventual death.
Terrifyingly, the vast prevalence of the disease may not have been known until fairly recently. Just this year, Boston University found the existence of CTE in the brains of 96% of 91 tested subjects, all of whom played football at some organized level. When the disease was first discovered in 2002 in the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the NFL initially tried to limit the fallout from the discovery. According to Omalu, “NFL doctors told me that if 10% of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”
Why it remains to be seen whether Junior Seau’s death was preventable, his suffering from CTE would certainly have been helped by the usage of marijuana
While it remains to be seen whether Junior Seau’s death was preventable, his suffering from CTE might have been eased by chemicals found in marijuana.
Last year, Lester Grinspoon a Harvard emeritus professor of psychiatry and prominent advocate for the medical use of marijuana, wrote an open letter to the NFL urging the league to support research into the neuro-protective potential of marijuana to alleviate CTE. According to Grinspoon, a National Institute of Health study on rat brain cells from 1998 pointed to neuro-protective qualities of two ingredients of marijuana, Cannabidiol and Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabidol (THC). In 2008, a similar study in Spain revealed that the THC receptors in the brain are involved in the healing process upon sustaining brain injury. In 2013, a team of researchers in Brazil showed that Cannabidiol has the ability to regenerate brain cells in mice, specifically in the areas of the brain attributed to depression, anxiety, and chronic stress—the symptoms of CTE. Most recently, a review of traumatic brain injury cases at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif. found that patients who tested positive for high levels of THC were less likely to die of their injuries.
It’s important to note that much more research remains to be done. The results of the animal studies cited above can’t be extrapolated to humans, and the UCLA Medical Center study was only one of correlation — since the patients with high levels of THC in their blood were also twice as likely to test positive for alcohol, one could also argue that the alcohol protected their brains.
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But if components of marijuana might be beneficial to patients with neurological injuries, the natural conclusion would be to engage in further study, and if that research were to demonstrate neuro-protective effects on humans, then to go on to attempt to develop a medication that could help prevent terrible effects of concussions and CTE.
That being said, the barriers to begin this sort of endeavor—research that nevertheless could save the game of football—are high (no pun intended). Perhaps most obviously, the biggest issue is one of funding. As Dr. Grinspoon has pointed out, there are only two types of entities capable of financing the costs of legitimizing this research: a governmental organization or a major corporation. As Marijuana remains a Schedule-I narcotic, the federal government presumptively would not (and has not) participated in this sort of research. One possibility, however, is the NFL – which made over $12 billion in revenue last year – or one of its philanthropic team owners.
Left top- macro-section of frontal lobe, no CTE; Left bottom- micro-section of frontal lobe no CTE; Middle/Right top- macro-section of frontal lobe, CTE; Middle/Right bottom- micro-section of frontal lobe, CTE
Left top- macro-section of frontal lobe, no CTE; Left bottom- micro-section of frontal lobe no CTE;
Middle/Right top- macro-section of frontal lobe, CTE; Middle/Right bottom- micro-section of frontal lobe, CTE
If the league were to finance this research, they would face an avalanche of cries of hypocrisy, as the league has a strict no-drug policy. Realistically, the program is often taken as seriously by its players as the league’s selection of the policy’s mandated testing date of April 20th (the unofficial holiday of recreational users of Marijuana). Players who have not been cited or arrested for drug possession, and who have not tested positive as part of the league’s drug program, need only to pass the single yearly Marijuana test and are then free from testing until the next off-season. Quite notoriously, players simply pass the annual test and continue to use the drug therapeutically for injuries during the season. Medical Marijuana is legal in 23 states, recreational use is legal in three states, and the drug has been decriminalized in many of the United States’major cities, yet the drug remains “illegal”for use by players.
Although the initial publicity for the NFL might be negative, the potential impact reaching into future generations is tremendous. Not only would the league attempt to cure a major medical question that plagues modern sports, but it could potentially set a precedent for major corporations to push Marijuana research forward to fully discover the drug’s potential. The looseness of the NFL’s current Marijuana policy, as well as Commissioner Goodell’s recent statement that the league is willing to support research into Marijuana’s medical uses specific to football, suggest that this partnership is a more than viable option.
This article was co-authored by Blake Yagman.
Jason Belzer, Esq. is Founder of GAME, Inc. and a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Sports Law at Rutgers University. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBelzer.
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