Written by Zack Etter
Addiction is a monster.
It will rear its head at inopportune times. It will surface after months or years of being dormant. You can’t “will” it away, you can’t take a magic pill to get better. Life with addiction encompasses the victim’s life entirely – thoroughly ripping through every avenue of peace, happiness, interests, finances, relationships, etc.
It doesn’t care how old you are. It doesn’t care how much money you make, or how talented you are. It doesn’t care how many people love you, or how many people are counting on you.
It doesn’t care if you’re a player in the National Football League.
In the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the Players’ Association, marijuana is outlined as a prohibited substance for all players. As such, the league conducts regular random drug tests. Once someone fails a drug test, the player enters a drug protocol where they’ll be tested more often. Many current and former players have argued that marijuana is a significantly safer and more sensible pain management tool than pain killers or other addictive (although legal) drugs.
The athletes who use marijuana or other substances recreationally are usually able to scale back their usage during times of drug tests. And if they don’t, they could be fined or suspended. Those who use the drug to manage their pain face the same issue. But here’s the bigger problem:
Many athletes, and people in general, use marijuana to self-medicate their mental health issues.
Two notable recent cases in the NFL feature Wide Receiver Josh Gordon and Defensive End Randy Gregory. Front offices and coaches were made aware that both players had failed drug tests for marijuana in the past, but were told they were overall good people who wanted to get better and wanted to be successful. The Browns, Patriots, and Cowboys gave these players a chance, a second chance after getting suspended, a third chance after being suspended again, etc. The players would relapse, vow to change and get better, promise to focus on football entirely, perform at an extremely high level on the field, and then relapse again.
Addiction is a monster.
Imagine being so depressed that you feel completely hopeless. You feel like you’ll never get through the day, and you’re considering suicide. Good news: There’s an antidote to your pain. Marijuana eases your anxiety, levels your depression, and allows you to feel “normal” again. Bad news: That antidote is a banned substance in your profession, and using it puts your career in jeopardy.
Josh Gordon and Randy Gregory are constantly in a position where they must decide between doing what’s best for their mental health, and what’s best for their career. Their addiction is one that’s not accepted in their profession. If they were addicted to gambling on horse races, exercising, caffeine, or alcohol, that would be okay. But because their drug of choice is marijuana, they are both suspended indefinitely.
The next problem for the NFL: When a player is suspended, he is not allowed to have any contact with his teammates or coaches. The NFL isolates the player from his support system in his time of need. They take the player away from their daily routine, the activity they’re good at, the people who support and care about him, and then say, “when you stop doing drugs, you can come back.” The NFL is not only off base with their punishment, but the terms of the suspension creates an environment where the player who has a problem with drugs is more likely to continue their using.
I’m not advocating for players to use marijuana or other substances to self-medicate. There are more effective treatment options. Talk-therapy and antidepressants are both more effective in the long term to make permanent change, while smoking marijuana simply masks the issues in the short term. But the NFL must do better in their efforts to take care of their players. We’ve heard about all the steps the NFL has been taking to help players who suffer from CTE or other head injuries. Rule changes are made every year to make the game safer. The NFL needs to help players with mental health issues much more effectively. Mental health professionals, mental performance coaches, and Sport Psychologists should be employed by each organization. Players who struggle should see a therapist in-house, provided by the league. And if a player receives a suspension, rather than throwing the athlete to the wolves (his own devices), the league should have a structured support system to rehabilitate and contribute to the player’s progress.