NEW YORK – Roger Goodell has been tested for marijuana.
"I am randomly tested," the NFL commissioner said Friday, "and I'm happy to say that I am clean."
That got a laugh from reporters assembled at his annual Super Bowl news conference, but the topic is a serious one this week and Goodell deserves a bit of credit for that.
Last Thursday, at an appearance with GE CEO Jeff Immelt, Goodell was asked about the possible use of medical marijuana by NFL players to treat the effects of concussions and other head injuries. "I'm not a medical expert," he said. "We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that. Our medical experts are not saying that right now."
He echoed those comments Friday, although he said the league is "not actively considering" a change in its drug policy despite the two states represented in Sunday's game – Colorado and Washington – have legalized marijuana.
Goodell is very careful with his words, as are most executives of multi-million dollar businesses. He could have dismissed the issue, pointing to the fact that marijuana is a federally controlled substance and illegal in most states. He could have given a non-answer that would have lessened the likelihood of further questions. Instead, marijuana has become one of the biggest topics in the days leading up to the biggest NFL moment of the year.
The most significant part of Goodell's statement wasn't "we will consider that," although that certainly raised eyebrows. It was, "We will obviously follow signs." Following signs is something the NFL has not done well as awareness of the damaging long-term effects of head trauma has grown. The league has been slow if not negligent in its response to a crisis among current and former players. The "League of Denial" documentary this season was one of the most embarrassing moments in a while for a league that has enormous appeal worldwide.
So the promise to "follow signs" is not just lip service. It's a vow to be aware.
There is plenty to be aware of, and it's not only in the realm of concussions. This is a pain issue. Intense pain has always been a part of football, and a part of retirement from football. No matter how many rules changes or padding improvements take place, it will hurt to play the sport, and life after the sport will hurt. Brett Favre is a case study in the danger of treating this pain, as he went from one Vicodin for a shoulder injury to more than 10 per day. At one point in the '90s he was vomiting up the pills from nausea, washing them off and swallowing them again. Former quarterback Ray Lucas was taking pain pills at the rate of nearly 500 per month. A 2011 study found retired NFL players use painkillers four times more than the general population.
Statistics from the CDC show drug overdose death rates more than tripled from 1990 to 2008. Prescription painkillers were involved in nearly 15,000 overdose deaths every year. And it's not just pills. Surely there are also players – active and retired – who are self-medicating with alcohol. There's no need to list the risks in that.
Now consider the dangers of synthetic marijuana, which is what tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. was charged with possessing in late December. Substances like Spice and K2 are on the rise in the athlete community, and they are quite dangerous. Possible side effects include significant hallucination, seizures, rapid heart rate, hypertension, severe agitation, passing out and panic attacks.
This isn't to say marijuana is a failsafe alternative. "It's questionable with respect to the positive impact," Goodell said, "but there is certainly some very strong evidence to the negative impacts, including addiction and other issues." There's a reason marijuana is a banned substance, and a reason it's not legal in every state. That's why Goodell's measured but open-minded response, and his expressed intent to "follow signs," was appropriate. There is some evidence that the active ingredient in marijuana may help protect the brain from the effects of traumatic injury. That's not a direct causation, but it's the kind of sign Goodell is wise to monitor in case it leads to more hard science. Players need safe, reliable ways to cope with pain during and after football. It's possible medical marijuana can help with that.
Goodell didn't say much Friday. But in a league where post-retirement health is at risk, saying little is better than saying nothing at all.
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