Ex-NFL Players Rally Behind Medical Marijuana

Faced with traumatic brain injury, depression, chronic pain, and addictive meds, former players are coming together in support of medical marijuana.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Thirty ex-NFL players have teamed up with a cannabis company in California to test medical marijuana as a treatment for chronic pain and depression. The move comes in the wake of increasing reports on the physical and mental anguish retired football players face, including a potentially debilitating brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Is this the answer they’ve been looking for?

Leading the player side of the trial is Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, an organization founded by a former NFL star to spread awareness about the effectiveness of the drug. Longstanding marijuana extract maker Constance Therapeutics will provide the extracts and oils that players will use to treat their pain.

The “study” is an unprecedented attempt to circumvent the government’s tight grip on cannabis—one that those behind it hope will prove life changing for thousands of retired players in pain.

For NFL players—who withstand bone-breaking, muscle-tearing, and concussion-causing impact—chronic pain is somewhat inevitable. For the lucky ones, the pain subsides when they retire; for others, it’s a lifelong battle. According to a 2007 study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, nearly 50 percent of retired football players struggle with chronic pain.

On top of pain to joints and muscles, the toll that football takes on the brain is great. Those who reportedly suffered multiple concussions during their years on the field are more likely to suffer from depression when it ends. A 2013 study from the University of Texas found that 40 percent of retired football players suffer from some level of depression.

The condition is also a symptom of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which was first discovered in football by a Nigerian-American doctor performing an autopsy on ex-NFL star Mike Webster in 2002. Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research set off a firestorm among NFL leadership, who until recently denied a link between football and brain disease.

Omalu’s findings, which were captured in Concussion, the 2015 movie starring Will Smith, form the foundation of a research project now being led by neurologist Dr. Ann McKee. Of the 79 pro football players’ brains that she has examined thus far, 76 have been diagnosed as having CTE. Among the symptoms associated with it are dementia, depression, erratic or aggressive behavior, and seizures.

Thus far, the treatment options for chronic pain, depression, and other effects of CTE are limited. The NFL forbids players from using marijuana, despite studies that have shown it to be effective in treating pain and mood disorders. Without it, players must rely on pain pills, anti-inflammatories, and muscle relaxers. According to a study from Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, 52 percent of retired players reported using pain medication in season—71 percent of whom admitted to misusing them.

While the drugs may prove successful in numbing the pain enough for players to take the field, they can also form a dangerous habit that stays with players when they leave. Beyond high rates of depression among former players is the risk of suicide, which has claimed the life of dozens. One of the most notable is New England Patriots’ linebacker Junior Seau, who was diagnosed with CTE upon his death.

The story is one that Kyle Turley, a nine-year veteran of the NFL who founded Gridiron Cannabis Coalition (GCC), knows all too well. As an offensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs, Turley endured a grueling career that included multiple concussions. At the age of 34, Turley was officially diagnosed with CTE. In the midst of a full-blown addiction to pharmaceuticals upon retiring, he began struggling with thoughts of suicide. Eventually, he decided to try marijuana.

“My life is getting exponentially better,” he told ESPN in November. “I’m getting myself back. My mind is starting to come back in many ways, and cannabis allows you to do that, it allows you to deal with these things.” Turley said that cannabis not only allowed him to clear his mind, but that the pain-relief qualities of some strains could be “compared to Vicodin.”

After realizing the benefits of marijuana, Turley decided to start GCC, an organization dedicated to the advancement of a drug that he says gave him his life back. “American football is plagued with multiple ailments and diseases currently void of non-addictive treatments and cures,” says Turley. “The GCC is determined to resolve this impasse to allow layers and the public option of an organic treatment for injury and illness through cannabis.”

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For its first foray into the research world, GCC has paired up with Constance Therapeutics, an organization that produces whole plant cannabis extracts using all of the compounds within the plant, including THC. GCC is providing the players, Constance is providing the marijuana extracts. The 30 ex-players in the study will take the medicine and self-report the results. One such player, Eddie Lee “Boo” Williams, has been outspoken about his marijuana use for years.

A tight end for the New Orleans Saints, his five-year career in the NFL left him with serious chronic pain. After years of abusing pain pills, he switched to marijuana—and now wants to convince other retirees to do the same. “My experience with cannabis has taught me that it is a far better option than the pills that get shoved at players,” he says. “If I can save one life or improve one life with this study that GCC and Constance Therapeutics are doing, I will have accomplished my mission.”

Constance Finley, the owner of Constance Therapeutics, says it’s an exciting project for her company, which focuses on harvesting the flower from the female plant. Finley became a supporter of medical marijuana after using it to treat her rare autoimmune disease. Now, she hopes to bring others the same relief.

“My mission is to help people and these NFL players so desperately need help treating the lasting ramifications from the high-impact sport because, as we have seen in the media, all too often the prescription medications they are taking are either leading to addiction or just plain not working for them,” Finley tells The Daily Beast. “We want to embark on scientific research that will clearly show that medicinal cannabis actually can be an option for the issues that NFL-players or any athlete deal with.”

Not all of the retired players in the study are participating directly for their own benefit. Toi Cook, a former defensive back for the New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers, and Carolina Panthers, escaped his years at the NFL unscathed—in part, he believes, because his position allowed him to prepare for hits. Cook has decided to participate in the study for the former players who are suffering, and the ones who have taken their own lives.

“We want to help these guys get some sort of relief if they need relief,” Cook tells The Daily Beast. “Something that makes them feel better so we don’t have the Junior Seaus, the Dave Duersons, and the Andre Waterses.” While Cook believes the safety of the sport has improved, he recognizes that it puts players’ bodies through things that humans are not meant to withstand.

“When you sit back and think about it, it’s amazing that some of these guys are alive,” says Cook.