Does your favorite athlete use cannabis to recover?
Last year, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the group responsible for drug testing olympic athletes, finally removed CBD from the list of banned substances. The agency determined that CBD does not have the potential to enhance performance, nor does it represent a health risk to the athletes. In a similar ‘forward-thinking’ fashion, the WADA allowed caffeine in 2004 to not penalize contestants who metabolize it in different rates.
If this is true for world’s top athletes, why is CBD still banned in the NCAA, NBA, and NFL?
For nearly a century, professional and collegiate athletes have been tested for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and banned substances as part of their drug screening protocols. Players driven by intense competition, an appetite for victory, wealth, and fame have knowingly and sometimes unknowingly doped. This is especially true in the revenue generating sports of football and basketball, where pressure is greater than ever on players to consistently perform at the highest level — even when injuries occur, and they always occur.
I learned this first hand as a collegiate basketball player. As a freshman, I remember walking into the locker room on the first day of practice and seeing the seniors ‘rolling out’ their leg muscles, stretching with therapeutic bands, and taping up various parts of their bodies. I was thinking, “HA! I’m going to run all around these geezers!” I was fresh out of dominating my high school conference, stretching was boring, warming up meant practicing dunks, and cooling down meant practicing more dunks, followed by a burger and a couple hours of FIFA or 2K.
Little did I know at the time the toll that multiple seasons of collegiate sports would take on the body. Let’s just say the next couple of years was a humbling experience.
I probably spent just as much time in the training room as I did on the basketball court. Whether it was a broken nose, sprained ankle, or concussion, I kept getting hurt and general soreness was the new norm… Derrick Rose may be the only person more injury prone than me (weird flex, I know).
I became a starter and important role player — the defensive stopper — as a freshman. The pressure was on me to perform and be there for my teammates on a daily basis despite whatever ailment was nagging me at the moment. As a result, getting access to pain relievers was never a problem. It became a pre-practice and pre-game routine to pop a few Advil to make it through.
That said, the pressure wasn’t on me like it is on these other players playing at the highest level, where millions of people are watching and not only your livelihood, but the comfort and well-being of your family may depend on your performance. It was okay if I missed a practice or even a game, but the same can’t be said for these athletes. In 2009, former professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to using steroids, told ESPN, “When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level, every day.”
In a similar vain, only 494 players made the NBA opening-day roster list. This means that if you can’t compete, some other hungry player will be there to take your spot and you could lose your shot.
In efforts to help players recover quickly, doctors and trainers are quick to prescribe pills with high addiction rates if it means key players can return to action. It doesn’t take more than a quick google search to find stories of athletes who have fallen victim to substance addiction. One recent estimate suggested that former National Football League athletes use painkillers at a rate four times the general population. It’s one thing when athletes seek these drugs on their own, it’s another when their coaching and medical staff is feeding them — they are driven by their duty to keep athletes on the field and in some cases lucrative payouts from selling the drugs.
Former NFL wide receiver Calvin Johnson compared this to doctors giving out powerful, addictive opioids and other painkillers like they were candy.
Research findings have illuminated the fact that cannabis is a far safer method and long-term solution to anxiety, wellness, and pain relief than dangerously additive painkillers. CBD, in particular, is extremely promising because it provides natural pain-relief and anti-inflammatory benefits without the “high” that comes with smoking marijuana and its psychoactive component, THC.
Former NBA player and collegiate All-American Jay Williams has been a long time advocate for the medical benefits of marijuana. After a motorcycle accident, Williams suffered from an addiction to painkillers like Oxycontin for five years. He explained to Fox Business,
“You see pictures of guys in California going in and getting their medical marijuana cards. And I’m not just saying athletes, let’s talk about society. I know a lot of people that use it. It’s something that the whole world is becoming more progressive with. So it’s about time some of these entities do as well.” I agree.
However, despite the beliefs of Williams, many other athletes, and former commissioner of the NBA, David Stern’s, suggestion that CBD should be removed from the banned substance list, the NBA has a rather strict stance against CBD and gives players four random drug screening tests a year. A failure to pass results in increasingly harsh punishments. World-class athletes should have the freedom to use CBD creams that speed up the recovery of sore muscles and joints without having to worry about ridiculous fines or eligibility concerns.
Other NBA players have echoed William’s sentiment. Karl Anthony-Towns (KAT), a perennial All-Star and major young talent, has been outspoken on the topic. Despite having never smoked marijuana himself, KAT stated that he agrees that marijuana should be allowed in professional sports. According to KAT, “Just because we’re NBA athletes, we’re not super humans. Some of us have conditions that could use [medical marijuana] to our benefit for everyday living, just taking care of our kids and our families.”
Some other sports organizations seem to be realizing the misaligned nature of their banned substance policies. In 2014, the NCAA announced it was reducing the penalty for a positive marijuana test from a year to six months. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, though not in support of the recreational use of cannabis, claimed he is willing to listen to the league’s medical advisors in regards to the role of cannabis in safely treating pain in players. Many are expecting the league’s policy against THC and CBD to change during the renegotiation of the league contractual terms in 2020–1,800 NFL players are currently suing the NFL for violating laws to keep them playing in the midst of debilitating pain.
Lastly, Rutgers University took matters into their own hands, reducing penalties for marijuana-related offenses while tightening those for performance enhancing drugs — stating a clear difference between how it views the two classes of substances.
Unfortunately, marijuana still has negative connotations in many professional sports circles. As these leagues try to position their brands in the best possible light, hopefully allowing CBD can be the first step to putting the health of athletes first. WADA’s decision to permit CBD was a major step in the right direction.
Additionally, the increasing comfort with which athletes speak of their positive experiences with CBD should loosen the stigma associated with cannabis use and further strengthen its case as a natural remedy for many ailments that come with being an athlete. Many athletes are leading this charge — telling their personal stories and jumping into the cannabis industry.
It is no secret that society has gotten more tolerant to marijuana in the past couple of decades. Recreational marijuana use has been legalized in nine states plus Washington, D.C. Thirteen states have decriminalized — but not legalized — marijuana. Medicinal marijuana is allowed in 30 states. A majority of Americans support legalization of pot. That support has more than doubled this century.
It is time that sports leagues do the same.