HBO’s Real Sports examines pot use in the NFL

Twitter buzzed with jokes about “high times” and “Super Bowl 420” as the Seahawks and Broncos advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII, representing the two states in the U.S. to legalize marijuana. Though the drug has been decriminalized in Washington and Colorado — and has been approved for medicinal use in 20 states — marijuana remains banned by the NFL and players continue to make the news for possession and failed drug tests. HBO’s acclaimed Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel returns on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET/PT) with a closer look at marijuana use in the NFL. We reviewed an advance copy of the episode and the results of the segment will no doubt spark additional controversy as the league prepares for its marquee event in New York/New Jersey on February 2.

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The enlightening feature, reported by correspondent Andrea Kremer and produced by Chapman Downes, includes interviews with former NFL tight end Nate Jackson (Broncos 2003-2008); former NFL punter Chris Kluwe (Vikings 2005-2012); NFL Senior Vice President of Law and Labor Policy Adolpho Birch; Dr. Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and former NFL player Daniel Davis (Real Sports happened to run into him at a Denver area dispensary while they were filming the segment).

According to the HBO report, players estimate that between fifty and sixty percent of today’s NFL players smoke pot. Former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson spoke candidly about self-medicating with marijuana during his playing days in Denver.

“I weeded as needed,” Jackson told Kremer. “For me, personally, [marijuana as a painkilling alternative is] very viable. I prefer it. Marijuana was something that helped me, as the season wore on my body would start to break down. I was in a lot of pain.”

The Real Sports report also found that players prefer marijuana for pain management over opiate-based painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycodone which are legal and regularly prescribed by NFL team physicians to help players deal with the inevitable pain and injuries that result from the physically brutal sport.

“For a lot of guys, they see what happens with the older generation of players and how a lot of those guys got addicted to pain pills,” former NFL punter Chris Kluwe told Kremer. “You know – they have alcohol problems. And they're like, ‘Well, you know, is there an alternative? Is there something else we can do?’ And marijuana is an alternative.”

Real Sports presented this information to NFL Senior Vice President of Law and Labor Policy Adolpho Birch, who oversees the NFL’s drug policy. When asked what he would tell a player who uses marijuana for its pain-killing benefits, Birch responds matter-of-factly:

“He should not use marijuana. He should consult his team physician or primary physician. If pain management is an issue for him, they can provide him with assistance in that respect.”

Beyond pain management and relief, the Real Sports report also explores another potential benefit of marijuana — effective treatment of traumatic brain injuries (another issue Real Sports has reported on for several years). Nate Jackson discussed his use of marijuana to help ease concussion symptoms after a blow to his head and neck knocked him out of the second to last game of his career. “The weed helped me,” Jackson told Kremer.

Kremer interviewed Dr. Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the doctor who discovered THC in 1964 and who has spent the last 50 years studying marijuana. Mechoulam has researched marijuana’s efficacy in relieving not only chronic pain and inflammation but how traumatic brain injuries in mice react to marijuana. Dr. Mechoulam allowed Real Sports to film his team in action as it worked with injured mice. The results are remarkable.

In light of the information presented in the Real Sports report and societal changes, is it high time for the NFL to revisit its zero-tolerance policy towards marijuana?

“There is a natural runoff from the game that requires some type of self-medication for a lot of people,” Nate Jackson told Kremer. “I believe that they should be free to choose what that medication is, especially in a society that's becoming more and more accepting of pot.”

Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel premieres Tuesday, January 21 on HBO (10 p.m. ET/PT) with repeats on HBO and HBO2 throughout the month of January and February. The program will be available from January 27-February 17 on HBO On Demand.

This month’s episode also includes two additional must-see segments: “Boomer and Gunnar,” an excellent Frank Deford feature on Boomer Esiason’s fight against cystic fibrosis, and “Sacramento’s King,” a riveting Bernard Goldberg story on Vivek Ranadive, the new owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.  

Amanda Rykoff is a veteran baseball writer who has written for espnW and Sports on Earth. You can read more from her at Bloguin's The Outside Corner. Follow her on Twitter at @amandarykoff.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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