Which will come first; nationwide marijuana legalization, or NFL football players smoking weed? It’ll be close.
August is the month when the fancies of many Americans shift — totally and irrevocably, until after Christmas trees have shed their needles — towards our most popular ritual, our national religion: Football season is here again.
But pro football is in serious existential jeopardy. That is, it would be if we inhabited a rational world.
The long-term reward for its participants? A near-guarantee of life-altering brain trauma, more certain than any bookmaker’s stone-cold lock. Before the dementia sets in, players can expect intractable chronic pain. All of this for players who “enjoy” the shortest careers of any pro athlete and who go to great lengths to hide injuries for fear of being cut from their non-guaranteed contracts without compensation.
Even worse than this terrible human toll? Ratings are down. Somehow, the NFL has managed to present a product that’s both dangerous and boring — like an out-of-control combine harvester hurtling towards an unwitting farmer at two miles an hour.
Despite (or because of) this, the NFL remains an important cultural acid test. It remains to be seen which transformative milestone America will achieve first — relaxation of federal marijuana prohibition, or pro football players being allowed to smoke weed — but the country is hurtling quickly towards both.
As the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, league honchos have sent a letter to the players’ union, offering to help study whether medical marijuana can help players survive the sport. While nothing has changed yet — and neither the union nor the league have made any public statements, let alone moves — this is nonetheless the “clearest indication to this point that the league may be willing to work cooperatively with the union toward such marijuana use,” as the paper reported.
The NFL is unique among the major American pro sports in that marijuana use among players is explicitly banned, and while players can game the system easily enough (particularly since the NFL recently raised the threshold for triggering a positive test and entering the league’s substance-abuse program), the league stands alone in its vigorous pursuit of weed-free gladiatorial combat — an achievement that would be impossible without a training-room full of pharmaceutical drugs.
But last year — bending to pressure from numerous former players, as well as the country’s greater cultural shift towards legal marijuana use — the NFL Players Association announced it would form a “pain management committee,” the goal of which would be to study what we already know: Cannabis is effective for treating pain; where marijuana is available, prescription drug use goes down.
League honchos, including commissioner Roger Goodell, have been noncommittal. The usual excuse has been that the NFL’s prohibitions on marijuana use are baked into the collective-bargaining agreement, which expires in 2020. And neither the league nor the union have made any progress towards easing the stiff penalties for players caught with cannabis in their systems.
There are other outstanding labor issues in pro football: Players want to reduce the league’s power to impose fines and suspensions. Progress on discipline or the cannabis question is unlikely to come before the new CBA is negotiated. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate, there’s a concrete proposal to legalize marijuana nationwide — and punish states for having bad marijuana laws.
Which means Congress may modernize more quickly than pro football.
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