The NFL’s Complicated Relationship with Cannabis


Retired NFL player Martellus Bennett recently told the Bleacher Report Podcast hosts Chris Simms and Adam Lefkoe that he believes that “about 89 percent” of NFL players smoke marijuana according to The Chicago Tribune.

While controversial, Bennett’s comments reflect how athletes and marijuana have had a complicated relationship.  A drug that once was responsible for ruining careers of athletes like Ricky Williams could be a safe alternative to painkillers and a possible treatment for severe brain trauma.

Pot Treatment for Pain

For centuries people have experienced the medicinal benefits of cannabis.  As more countries and states legalize weed, especially for medical use, its prohibition in the professional sports world is being reconsidered.  As we all know, elite athletes work their bodies hard and sometimes to the point of injury and pain. To treat that pain, some are taking prescription painkillers.  Players often forgo traditional painkillers for marijuana to cope with chronic pain to avoid harming their organs. In The Chicago Tribune article, Martellus Bennet explains that “there’s times of the year where your body just hurts so bad, that you don’t want to just be popping pills all the time. . . . It ruins your liver. There’s a lot of these anti-inflammatories that you take for so long that like, it starts to eat at your liver or kidneys and things like that. And a human made that. God made weed.”

Cannabis Treatment for CTE

Elite athletes are not just focused on physical pain relief that comes with marijuana use.  Contact sports where participants are vulnerable to head injury are experiencing serious backlash due to brain diseases like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, CTE is a “term used to describe brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head traumas.”  People with CTE experience symptoms including “difficulties with thinking (cognition), physical problems, emotions and other behaviors.”  While CTE impacts a number of contact sports, none has received as much criticism as football. Part of that is due to the sport’s popularity and visibility of its players.

Companies like Kannalife Sciences, Inc. are working on treatments for CTE.  According to the company’s website, they are focused on “efforts to bring forth a clinically approved treatment for CTE.”  They currently hold the “exclusive license from the federal government to commercialize a cannabinoid patent currently held by the U.S. Government and National Institutes of Health.”

Kannalife is focused on the NFL. In a press release, they stated that they were “looking to work with the NFL to help create a potential safer option for players.” In 2017 they announced that they had added NFL Pro-Bowl and Kansas City Chiefs placekicker, Nick Lower to their advisory broad.  A statement from the company describes Lower’s role as leading “the Company’s initiative on speaking about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and Kannalife’s efforts to bring forth a clinically approved treatment for CTE.”

By: Ayanna Rutherford