One of the mostly hotly debated subjects in sports is the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Among the drugs not allowed – albeit maybe not for performance-enhancing reasons – is marijuana. With many current and former pro athletes dealing with significant physical pain, some of them have turned to medicinal marijuana. While I don’t take a side on whether leagues should allow players to use it, I thought I would start the discussion of marijuana in sports for my latest newspaper column.

With today’s 24/7 sports coverage, Twitter and talk radio, sports fans have grown accustomed to coaches making outlandish comments. I doubt many fans expected what the reigning NBA Coach of the Year had to say – not about officiating or players – but about marijuana.

Steve Kerr openly discusses marijuana in sports

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr admitted on a podcast last week that he had used marijuana to try to overcome the back pain that led him to undergo two surgeries and miss about half of the season. While he acknowledged marijuana didn’t help him, he stated it was preferable to taking painkillers.

The NFL and other sports leagues must examine marijuana in sports

The admission received tremendous media scrutiny, but it largely missed the bigger point Kerr was trying to make. He understands the physical damage professional athletes, especially NFL players, inflict on their bodies. He wants the leagues to at least consider marijuana as an option for players to deal with their pain.

The physical toll on NFL players and their use of painkillers

Many NFL players absorb collision after collision at the line on every play, while others risk taking huge hits crossing the field to make catches. The fractures, sprains and concussions hurt – a lot. It should be no surprise that the use of narcotic painkillers among NFL players is thought to be high.

The use of these drugs could be getting out of hand. Two years ago, the DEA investigated NFL teams and their use of these medications. Several former players had claimed the league and teams were misusing them to get players on the field at the expense of the athletes’ long-term health.

Also read:
Use of painkillers for injuries during football and pain after football ends

Support for the use of marijuana among professional athletes

The idea of players instead using marijuana for pain is spreading. A group of former NFL players created the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition to promote its legal use in the sport. The NFL Players Association formed a committee to look at issues surrounding pain among its players.

I am certainly not an expert on pain management, so I’m not qualified to argue for or against medicinal marijuana use as a treatment for chronic pain. I do think it’s important that we start the discussion. After all, according to International Business Times, 56% of Americans support legalized marijuana.

Marijuana as a sports performance enhancer?

Other than the use of marijuana to treat pain, some athletes use it to boost performance. While there is little evidence that its use can improve athletic performance, the World Anti-Doping Agency keeps marijuana on its banned substances list.

Some of the theoretical benefits of marijuana for athletes include improve concentration, more impulsive responses and aid in overcoming traumatic experiences. Those changes come at the expense of slower reaction times, decreased alertness, quicker muscle fatigue and more.Pain in professional sports is a difficult problem.

The lack of research on marijuana for athletes

The challenge with knowing the true effects of marijuana on athletes – either for pain management or performance – is the lack of research. Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, so researchers must get approval from multiple organizations to study it on patients. Scientists at Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania just launched a study on marijuana’s effects on NFL players. Hopefully we will have real data soon.

Leagues, players and collective bargaining

As for now, professional sports leagues do not allow their athletes to use marijuana. Any change to this policy would have to come through collective bargaining between the players and the league. In a 2014 interview in GQ Magazine, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expressed that the league was more concerned about performance-enhancing substances. He preferred that NBA players don’t use marijuana, but he agreed that the NBA could adjust its stance over time.

Another NBA coach, however, urged caution at Kerr’s remarks. Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson told ESPN that he worried it could send the wrong message to kids. He believes that marijuana could be a first step to the use of more dangerous drugs, dropping out of sports and school and involvement in crime. Watson insists that any message about the use of marijuana in sports should come from doctors, not coaches.

The need for research and expert opinions

There are billions of dollars at stake for leagues like the NBA and NFL. Players give everything they have physically for the benefit of their teams and the fans, even if it costs them a good quality of life in the future. It’s at least worth studying whether marijuana use could safely help the athletes. We need more research and the insight of medical experts qualified to address this controversial topic.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the December 7, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.

Steve Kerr says he used marijuana for back pain, hopes leagues soften stance. By Chris Haynes. December 4, 2016.

Suns’ Earl Watson: Support for marijuana can be ‘slippery slope’. By Chris Haynes. December 4, 2016.

NFL Players Searching For Painkiller Choices Hope For Relaxed Marijuana Ban. By Tom Goldman. NPR. November 21, 2016.

Why More Athletes Are Turning to Weed. By Erin Kelly. Greatist. October 13, 2016.

Cannabis Legalization And The NFL: Athletes Are Embracing The Medicinal And Financial Benefits Of Marijuana, So Why Can’t The League Play Nice? By Joel Warner. International Business Times. May 3, 2016.

Professional Athletes Call for Action on Medical Cannabis. By Alex Thiersch. Huffington Post. March 30, 2016.