When the NFL and NFL Players Association announced the creation of a “Joint Pain Management Committee” this past week, which will “conduct research concerning pain management and alternative therapies,” a lot of ears perked up.
“Pain management” and “alternative therapies” are usually code words for one product: marijuana.
The NFL has been testing for marijuana and suspending players since the 1980s. But with marijuana now fully legal in 10 states, and the ravages of opioids and other addictive painkillers now well-established, could it be that the NFL is considering doing away with marijuana testing? Or, even more drastically, is the NFL ready to embrace marijuana as an “alternative therapy?”
“It’s much broader than that,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Of course they will look at what role medical marijuana can have in [pain management]. That’s something that will be part of their studies. But it is much broader than that.”
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said this new committee has been created to compile research on the benefits and effects of marijuana, but also for other alternative therapies. “We’ve charged the committee with looking at any and all strategies for treating pain,” Sills said. “Marijuana, cannabinoids, CBD, those things will be on the list. But I think many times there’s a narrative that says, ‘If I have severe pain, I’m either going to take opioids or marijuana, those are the only two strategies.’ And that’s absolutely wrong.
“There are many other treatment strategies — some that are not medicine — that can be used to treat both acute and chronic pain. So we want this committee to holistically look at all of those alternatives and tell us what’s best.”
The NFL’s attitudes on marijuana have already softened in recent years. In 2014, the NFL reduced the penalties for marijuana, with players not facing suspension until their fourth failed test (two failed tests for all other recreational drugs). Now the NFL appears to be a step closer to completely “decriminalizing” marijuana with this announcement that it will be conducting this medical-based study.
“We’re asking them to look at all of these strategies, marijuana and the others,” Sills said of the pain management committee. “What does the evidence show us? How effective is it? What are the side effects? What are the potential downsides? How could it intersect with performance? And bring back recommendations on that. I think it’s really important to go where the science takes us here.”
But one NFL owner said to pump the brakes. The NFL won’t be the first professional league to end its marijuana testing just yet. “We may get there. I think some owners certainly have softened on it a little bit,” the owner said. “But I think we’re a long way from deciding we’re not going to test anymore. I think most people would say, ‘Let’s hear from our medical experts about what we’re doing here, whether we’re causing more problems than we’re solving.’ ”
Of course, the worst-kept secret about the NFL’s marijuana testing is that it is mostly toothless. Players who are not in the league’s drug program get tested once per year for recreational drugs, and once they pass, they are free to smoke at will.
The test comes sometime between April 20 and Aug. 9, but almost always in the first two weeks of training camp. It’s considered an “intelligence test” more than anything, because players know it’s coming.
Recently retired defensive end Chris Long said this past week that if not for smoking marijuana throughout his career, “I’m not as capable of coping with the stresses of the day-to-day NFL life.”
“Testing players once a year for ‘street drugs,’ which is a terrible classification for marijuana, is kind of silly because, you know, players know when the test is,” Long said on “The Dan Patrick Show.” “If you’re serious about players not smoking, you’d be testing more often. I hope they go the opposite direction and kind of realize how arbitrary doing that one test a year is.”
But that’s the other little secret about the NFL’s drug policy — the league really isn’t too concerned with players smoking weed.
Goodell and the owners know it’s counterproductive to take star players like Ricky Williams and Josh Gordon off the field just because of an affinity for marijuana. And they know that a significant portion of the league is using it.
The current policy is mostly for show. A stricter policy doesn’t help anyone. But there’s a big difference from having a wink-nod drug testing agreement, and fully removing marijuana from the banned list altogether.
“Most of us still want to hear from the medical people before we make any determinations or assessments one way or the other,” the owner said.
It’s also possible that the owners fully intend to do away with marijuana testing, but are playing coy about it due to upcoming negotiations with the NFLPA on a new collective bargaining agreement. The NFLPA hasn’t asked for concessions on marijuana testing yet in their two formal bargaining sessions, but the owners are expecting that the union will. The current CBA runs out in the spring of 2021.
In the meantime, the NFL’s policies aren’t exactly preventing players from using marijuana. But the NFL is not close to recommending marijuana and related products for pain management, and is not close to removing it from the list of banned substances.
“I think the science has unfortunately lagged behind a lot of the popular opinion and press on this, meaning we have a lot more opinion than science on the use of marijuana for pain,” Sills said. “But it’s something where I hope the science will catch up and I hope that this committee can help again support research that advances that question.”
Kraft is likely to avoid punishment
First, some good news for Robert Kraft coming out of the league meetings: It’s looking likely that Kraft will avoid any punishment for his legal issue in Florida. The topic did not come up among the owners this past week, just like it didn’t come up at the last round of owners’ meetings in March. And there doesn’t seem to be much momentum for giving Kraft a suspension or even a large fine.
While Kraft’s fellow owners were out for blood in Deflategate, that doesn’t appear to be the case now. One said Kraft has garnered sympathy for the embarrassment he has suffered. And now that the state of Florida’s case is hanging by a thread, and the human trafficking angle has been debunked, this owner sees no reason that Goodell should punish Kraft under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
Players such as Ezekiel Elliott and Kareem Hunt have been suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell even though no charges were filed against them. But each player was accused of a violent incident against women, and Kraft isn’t.
“If this gets thrown out [of court] and it was established there was no human trafficking, what are you left with? Not a whole heck of a lot,” the owner said. “You have to ask yourself, what did he do at the end of the day? He didn’t hurt anybody.”
The NFLPA has also been noticeably quiet about the incident, with one source surmising that the union doesn’t want to rock the boat with an influential owner as they begin CBA negotiations. The union also may not want to set the precedent of punishment, in case a player goes through a similar predicament.
Instead of a fine or suspension, contrition is the likeliest outcome, with Kraft making large donations to causes related to the sex industry.
“I would kind of hope that there wouldn’t be any discipline imposed,” the owner said. “Are we going to turn into the morality police?”
Now, some bad news. If Kraft is hoping that a win in court will save his Hall of Fame bid for 2020, he may be fighting a losing battle.
There’s no question that Kraft will still get into the Hall of Fame in the next few years. But before his legal incident, he was nearly a lock to be the “contributor” inducted in the next class. Now, “that ship has sailed” for this year, one Hall voter told me.
The thinking is that Kraft’s incident is just a little too fresh to turn around and elect him to the Hall of Fame, even if the charges are dropped. And with next year’s Hall of Fame class being included in the NFL 100 celebration, the Hall doesn’t want any story lines to distract from it. Kraft has the best credentials of any “contributor” left, but former Giants executive George Young is a close No. 2 and may get the call now instead.
Assuming the Hall still elects a “contributor” this year — an issue that is still being decided — the nomination likely comes in August, when Kraft’s legal case may still be open.
“I wouldn’t rule [Kraft] out, but George would be my guess to be the candidate. People feel like he’s fallen through the cracks,” the voter said.
Brady could be extended now
Last week I wrote again that I don’t quite understand the holdup with Tom Brady and his contract extension. He’s entering the last year of his deal, and with an extension the Patriots can give Brady a pay raise while also lowering his $27 million salary cap number, which is fourth-highest in the NFL. It’s win-win.
And with the Patriots being tight on the salary cap for most of the spring, it would have made sense for an extension to be done by now, so the Patriots could use that salary cap space to fill out the roster. Several readers responded that Brady can’t renegotiate until Aug. 8, one year after he signed his last renegotiated deal (the Patriots converted $10 million of Brady’s salary into a signing bonus, and added $5 million of incentives, none of which he earned).
Rule 13.8.a of the CBA states, “The contract of a Veteran Player may not be renegotiated to increase the Salary to be paid to the player during the original terms of the contract for a period of twelve months after the player’s most recent contract renegotiation.”
But I don’t believe this rule applies to Brady, and he can sign a new contract at any time. As salary cap expert and former agent Joel Corry explained via e-mail:
“The CBA says you can’t increase salary for one calendar year with a renegotiation. But technically, Tom Brady’s salary didn’t increase last year because none of the added incentives were earned. And his salary cap number didn’t increase, either. So Brady should be able to renegotiate his deal now and not have to wait until August.”
Cold-weather cities feel a draft
A few leftover items from the owners’ meetings:
■ The NFL has found an interesting concept with the NFL Draft traveling road show, and is now using it as a way to reward cities that will likely never host a Super Bowl.
Other than Dallas (which isn’t really in the Super Bowl rotation) and next year’s draft in Las Vegas, the NFL has awarded the draft to cold-weather cities: Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville, and coming up, Cleveland in 2021 and Kansas City in 2023. The 2022 draft site has not been determined yet, and while the buzz is on Los Angeles hosting the event at the Rams’ sparkling new football palace, Boston could be in the mix. When asked if Boston or the Patriots have shown interest, an NFL spokesman only said that bids are due later this year.
■ The NFL Management Council and NFLPA have had two official bargaining sessions on a new CBA, with the current agreement set to expire in the spring of 2021. A management council source said the negotiations have been much friendlier this time than they were 10 years ago, and predicted that a deal could get done next spring. One of the NFLPA’s main focuses so far is helping out the young veterans and “middle class” of veteran players that have been getting the squeeze by this current CBA (things such as more performance-based pay and better roster protections). The owners are happy to help the NFLPA achieve its goals, as long as it is just moving money around and not giving up a larger slice of revenue.
■ Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s executive vice president of media (and maybe the next commissioner), gave three small TV announcements. First, the Super Bowl will cut down from five commercial breaks per quarter to four, matching regular-season games. Second, divisional round playoff games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. instead of at 1 and 4:40, allowing for more eyeballs, and more flexibility (the league can now schedule a West Coast home game in that early slot). And third, the NFL is doing away with its “single-header” rule for one year, ensuring that every market gets three games every Sunday afternoon.
Great idea by the NFL and Black College Football Hall of Fame to partner on a 2019 NFL Quarterback Coaching Summit from June 24-25 in Atlanta. Several dozen coaches, executives, and ex-quarterbacks will be on hand, including Doug Williams, James Harris, Ozzie Newsome, Rick Spielman, and Jim Caldwell to help young minority coaches get into the coaching pipeline. The NFL has a big problem with diversity among quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators, the positions most likely to lead to head coaching jobs . . . It used to be that NFL teams would go full-bore with physicality in the first few days of training camp, but those days have come to an end. The NFL’s research found that 20 percent of all concussions last year happened in the first two weeks of training camp, and that offensive linemen took the brunt of it. Expect the first two weeks of training camp to be significantly lighter this year . . . Adam “Pacman” Jones retired on Friday, ending one of the more fascinating careers. The No. 6 overall draft pick in 2005, Jones was constantly in commissioner Roger Goodell’s crosshairs for his off-field conduct, earning a suspension for the 2007 season and getting released three times, including once by the Canadian Football League. Few would have expected him to play 13 NFL seasons, but Jones apparently turned his life around after signing with the Bengals in 2010. He lasted eight seasons with Cincinnati and one with Denver, earning first-team All-Pro honors in 2014 and a Pro Bowl bid in 2015.
The Detroit Free Press did a retrospective this past week honoring the 10,000th day since the Lions last won a playoff game (Jan. 5, 1992). Amazingly, it’s not even the longest streak in the NFL. That would belong to the Bengals, who haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.