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Former NFL player talks football, marijuana, and concussions

Former NFL defensive end Marvin Washington sat down to talk about marijuana use in the NFL, how it helps players, and his involvement in raising awareness about concussions in football.

He spoke on a panel with other former NFL players at the Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo on Sunday, Feb. 28 in Fort Worth. The panel, Cannabis and Athletics, which was presented by The Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, included University of Texas running-back and Heisman trophy winner Ricky Williams, and two time Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon who quarterbacked for the 1985 Chicago Bears team and was a part of a rap video called “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

Washington, a Dallas native, was a Super Bowl champion as well during his time with the Denver Broncos in 1998.

We caught up with him on the first day of the conference and spoke with him at length.

“If there’s ever a sport that should be letting their players use marijuana in relationship to pain relief, it’s the NFL,” he tells us. “That is what we’re trying to do because we see how the sausage is made in the NFL, we know what they use to help these guys to play, and it’s mostly opiate based pharmaceuticals.”

“Why not go with something natural, something that doesn’t cause a hardship on your kidneys and liver, not something that has addictive properties?”

Washington is part of an effort to educate the public about the consequences of prohibition and says that it’s time for the country to move forward and follow the science. “People will come to the logical conclusion that it has a lot of medicinal benefits.”

Given the number of players who have been in the news and suspended for their marijuana consumption, we asked him about two prominent players, both his co-panelist Williams, and current Browns receiver Josh Gordon.

“Ricky Williams took time off to get his body together and he’s a proponent of medicinal marijuana and that’s the thing that helped him. When we look back at this in about 25 years we’re going to say that he was a trendsetter because he opted not to do the pharmaceuticals and instead go with a different regiment.”

“Josh Gordon, he’s doing it recreationally, but I believe he’s doing it also to relieve some stress and some of the pain.”

Washington says that the NFL’s drug policy isn’t that stringent though, and players know when a test is coming.

“For a lot of the people in the NFL, we call it an intelligence test. It’s like dude, you can smoke 11 months out of the year and take one month off. Take the test and then go back to what you’re doing. Josh, I guess he doesn’t have the discipline to take that one month off.”

Gordon was originally suspended during the 2014-15 season after a failed drug test for marijuana, and was suspended for the entire 2015-16 season for drinking alcohol after the season had ended, which violated the league’s substance abuse policy since he had already been in trouble for violating the policy before.

He is expected to be reinstated for the 2016-17 season and Washington hopes that Gordon can adhere to the NFL’s drug policy.

Washington however does not agree with that policy and believes that within five years, marijuana will be treated like alcohol in the NFL and other sports leagues.

When asked how many players consumed cannabis medicinally while he played, Washington estimates that it’s likely the same amount that does so currently. He says estimates range from anywhere between 40 and 80 percent, and he believes it is somewhere in between, “definitely more than 50 percent of the players use marijuana either medicinally or recreationally.”

Even the players who consume marijuana recreationally don’t realize the benefits they are receiving he says.

“These guys who are using recreationally, they don’t know what medicinal benefits they’re getting. The NFL is very stressful, it’s a stress reliever. It also has anti-inflammatory properties, so they get those benefits even if they’re using it recreationally.”

Players often consume marijuana all through the season, and Washington thinks that’s a good thing.

“Here’s the thing, would a guy rather take these opiates that are doing no telling what damage to his kidneys and liver? Why not take something, whether you smoke it or eat it, take it on a Wednesday, watch film and do your work, then go to bed and wake up the next day with no side-effects and get the same benefits?”

Did the consumption of marijuana have a negative impact on anyone’s player or others skills? Washington doesn’t think so.

“You know what I don’t smoke marijuana so I don’t know about that, but let me say this, Nate Jackson is a proponent and he smokes marijuana for medicinal relief. He never smoked before a game or practice, and I believe these guys that are smoking aren’t smoking before a game or practice because it’s too dangerous. It does slow down your reflexes, it’s not a performance enhancer. Most guys smoke after games and practice, and I don’t see how that would have a negative effect on anything.”

“I’ve seen guys come in hung over, and that’s had a negative effect on the way they practice, and you practice how you play. So the biggest thing to me is alcohol because I’ve seen guys come in hung over.”

Given the negative connotations surrounding marijuana and people saying that it has a negative effect on people’s cognitive abilities and makes them lazy, we asked him if he thought that NFL players embracing medical cannabis or even recreational consumption of the plant would help break that stereotype.

“Yeah I don’t know where you get that line from, from what, Reefer Madness” as he paused to laugh. “But those are the negative connotations associated with it, but when you have guys like Kyle Turley and Ricky Williams and what have you, they went through high school, they achieved a lot and sacrificed a lot, so how are they lazy? What is lazy about getting up at 6 am in the morning and doing a four hour workout, doing that six or seven days a week. You’re missing holidays, or birthdays, or whatever to reach your goal to get to the NFL. You go to college and get an education” he trails off, seemingly not amused with the thought of these people being considered lazy.

“That is one of the negative connotations that I hate that’s associated with it because everybody wants to look at the stoners like that. It’s been my experience it’s not like that and I know what it takes to be at the top of your profession. You’re definitely not lazy.”

Being that he spent some time in Denver, we asked if he had any inclination that they might legalize marijuana there. He let loose a little at that point.

“When you think about it, it’s just a natural progression. I knew it was going to happen. Legalization, recreationally and medically, if it was going to come it’s going to come west of the Mississippi and not in an SEC state. You know because they’re, they’re ideologues in the bible belt. I thought it would come in Oregon, Washington State, which it is there. But Colorado is pretty free thinking. I lived in Colorado, I know all about it and when it happened I wasn’t surprised at all. They’re freethinkers and they’re, tree-huggers. They’re not tied to the bible and their guns like they are sort of in the south.”

When asked what impact legalization would have on the NFL and NFL policy, Washington says that they’ll have to go about it just like any other corporate entity. He figures it will be legal federally and in all 50 states within the next five years, so companies will begin treating it like they do alcohol.

“I talked an NFL GM last week and in five years, every sports league in America is not going to have a marijuana policy. It’s not a performance deterrent or enhancer. Why don’t we do what the World Anti-Doping Association that tests the Olympic athletes does? In order to test positive there you damn near have to be smoking it right before the competition. They’re smart about it, and they know it’s not a performance enhancer. I believe that’s where we’re going to be at.”

What drives him to personally be involved in this issue though? His involvement as a concussion CTE advocate. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes and those with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head.

CTE has been part of a large discussion in the NFL recently and has been the subject of much research and controversy. He believes CBD and THC, both compounds of the cannabis plant, can help with CTE.

“It’s a brain and mood disorder disease that is the NFL’s industrial disease. The government has a patent on CBD that has shown it to be an anti-oxidant and neural protectant for the brain.” He says that currently a company doing research into medical marijuana, Medical Marijuana Inc, is looking into marijuana as a possible treatment. Currently there is no treatment for CTE, which is believed to be correlated with concussions.

“There’s a lot of companies out there that are coming up with these really strong CBD based products that I believe can help football players that are dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and help stop these suicides, domestic violence, and depression these guys are going through. These guys need it and they played a long time in the NFL, they deserve some help.”

“Don’t get caught up in ideology, just follow the science. If you follow the science you are going to come to a logical conclusion, that this is something that can help and it has helped these kids that have these epileptic strokes and seizures. So why not help people with these head injuries, and not only football players, but also our soldiers that are coming out of these war theaters. People who are in all contact sports whether it’s hockey, soccer, MMA, or boxing can be helped.”

“I don’t think the creator built humans to play football. So let’s try to make this thing safer.”

Ask what message this support and usage of marijuana by players sends to kids, Washington delved into the many positive things that both CBD and THC can do for people. CBD has been shown to have many healing properties, and does not cause a high like THC does.

“Most of the products that are out there that are going to help athletes that’s CBD based so 29-year-old professional football players and 10-year-old pop warner kids can take take it and it’s going to act as an anti-inflammatory and it’s going to protect his brain.”

As for the THC aspect, he questions why this would be any different from the way athletes already are spokesmen and promoters of alcohol such as Budweiser. Most recently Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning raised several questions when he promoted Budweiser during a post-game interview at the Super Bowl.

Washington wants to regulate it just like alcohol and make it so that only those 21 and older can purchase it.

We then turned back to NFL concussion policy and asked if the current concussion protocol was sufficient.

He quoted John Madden, saying “they’ve come a long way, but they still have a long ways to go.”

“Obviously some people have slipped through the cracks, and it’s been horrific. I think the NFL should turn that over to independent outside professionals that do not have any skin in the game. Because I know how it is in the NFL. If I get dinged up and I come back and tell the doctor I’m all right now then they’ll say I’m all right. He’s tied to the team and the team’s success is tied to winning, and if you’re one of their better players they’re going to get you back out there.”

He says that by having someone out there with no skin in the game, people are less likely to fall through the cracks.

“Let’s take a look at some of the stuff that has happened this year like Case Keenum, the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. Case came in and they were going for a game winning drive. He’s a second team quarterback. What are you going to put in that third team guy who’s a rookie that’s been on the practice squad the last two weeks, or are you going to see if Case can can shake this off? If you’ve got an independent person that can do it, he’s coming out. But there wasn’t and they missed it. Their own teammates missed it.”

Keenum was involved in a game during the 2015-16 season where he appeared to suffer a concussion but kept playing in hopes of leading his team to victory. Later on he was found to have a concussion, however coaches stated that he appeared fine.

“You’ve got to educate the players. We’ve got to take care of each other. If I see you banged up, we appreciate you but you’ve got to get out of here and it’s next man up. The referees missed it, the trainers missed it, the spotters up in the box, the coaches up in the box all missed it. Everybody has to be involved in a collaborative effort along with an independent person to make sure that if a guy sustains a head injury, he has to come out.”

“We want this guy to have a quality of life when he’s in his forty’s and his fifty’s.”

We asked, do you think they missed it, or do you think they ignored it?

“You have over fifty something people on his side and you have another eighteen coaches, and you have the spotters up in the press box. You come to your own conclusion with that.”

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Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is a journalist and information technology specialist living in Waco, Texas. He has been working with the cannabis movement since 2009. He founded Texas Cannabis Report in 2013 to bring Texans accurate cannabis related news.

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