Rob Gronkowski is no stranger to endorsements. Football’s favorite frat boy has leveraged his personality and celebrity to promote energy drinks, iced coffee, and laundry detergent, to name a few products. Gronk is lovable and marketable. But the retired Patriots star’s latest endorsement, announced Tuesday, felt more personal. It was a call for letting athletes chart their own path for pain management.
At first glance, Gronkowski endorsing topical CBD — or cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating cannabis chemical — is peak millennial marketing. He got everyone all wound up with a big announcement about . . . weed oil. Even though CBD won’t get you high, it’s easy to joke about a guy who is high on life promoting marijuana- and hemp-based products.
But as Gronkowski, who was forced into retirement in March by a body no longer able and a spirit no longer willing to absorb the battering of NFL life, spelled out in emotional detail, pain management for athletes is no laughing matter. Neither is major North American sports leagues lagging behind the rest of society in removing the stigma from marijuana- and hemp-based products.
Anyone can saunter into their local supermarket and find these CBD products. They can make up their own mind as to whether they deliver real health benefits or not. The same should be true for professional athletes.
“I’m here today to appeal to the sports governing bodies of the world to update their position on CBD, whether that’s the NBA, MLB, or NFL,” said Gronk at a press conference to announce his endorsement deal for the CBDMEDIC brand by Abacus Health Products. “It’s just time.”
He’s right. While the efficacy of these products is unproven, if they provide relief for any athlete, they should be available as an option. Professional sports teams and leagues spend millions of dollars trying to find new and improved ways to keep their athletes/entertainers on the stage.
In pro sports, the athletes aren’t just employees; they’re the product. They’re what the leagues are selling. The loss of an iconic and instantly recognizable athlete like Gronk isn’t felt just by the Patriots. It’s felt by the NFL as well.
Gronkowski said CBD helped alleviate the persistent pain that truncated a brilliant career and compelled him to quit football before the age of 30. He claims he is now pain-free. Gronk called the use of CBD products “life-changing” and expressed that he wished he could have used CBD during his playing days to combat the pain.
If there are products that could keep players playing longer — and entertaining — that can be purchased at a supermarket, then what’s the harm in at least allowing athletes to experiment? It’s a lot cheaper than hyperbaric chambers and sensory-deprivation tanks. It also appears a lot safer than plying players with opioids, pain-killing shots, and anti-inflammatory drugs, some of which like Toradol can do a number on your stomach.
Sports leagues need to get in lockstep with the rest of society and open their creaky, fusty doors to CBD products and even the medicinal use of marijuana to cope with physical pain and mental health issues. The easy first step would be allowing the use of CBD products and giving the athletes some sovereignty over their pain management.
Using CBD is not the same as smoking marijuana. CBD is a compound found in marijuana and hemp plants. If CBD is sold at a place that is not a pot shop, it must have under 0.3 percent of the psychoactive compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) — not enough to get you high.
For all the testimonials, it’s hard to weed out the facts from the hype when it comes to CBD. It is not a scientifically proven source of pain management, and the Food and Drug Administration continues to slap down companies that promote their products as offering medical benefits.
A danger of a CBD or marijuana pain-management revolution is that it could lead athletes to eschew proper care and treatment of their issues. But the likelihood of that happening is remote. Athletes usually want to seek as many opinions as possible on a malady, and some are inherently distrustful of team medical staffs.
In some cases, the prohibition of marijuana-related medical options could deter players from getting the treatment they need. Houston Texans right tackle Seantrel Henderson was twice suspended by the NFL in 2016 for testing positive for marijuana use while he was with the Buffalo Bills. Henderson suffers from Crohn’s disease, an incurable inflammatory bowel disorder. An Israel medical study determined that cannabis can help relieve the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
Henderson, who copped to a history of marijuana use in college at the 2014 Scouting Combine, before his Crohn’s diagnosis in 2015, told the Houston Chronicle he no longer uses marijuana to cope with his Crohn’s.
The NFL is open to reviewing its medical policies with relation to marijuana and alternative methods of pain management.
In May, the league and the NFL Players Association announced the formation of a Joint Pain Management Committee with medical experts appointed by both sides. Part of that committee’s mission will be to conduct research concerning pain management and alternative therapies.
But as of now, CBD products are not permitted under the collectively bargained NFL substance abuse policy.
“As both the NFL and NFLPA communicate to players, they are responsible for what they put in their bodies and are held accountable if they test positive for a banned substance,” said a league spokesman via e-mail. “Players should not use CBD products since they may contain substances, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is banned under the NFL-NFLPA substances of abuse policy and could result in a positive test.”
It would help if athletic leagues and sports governing bodies could certify which CBD products were safe to use and had acceptable levels of THC.
In March, 2014 Olympic silver medalist skier Devin Logan, a Vermont native, was suspended for three months after testing positive for a higher-than-permissible level of THC. It resulted from what she said was the use of CBD drops for pain management that were mislabeled as containing only trace amounts of THC.
An athlete of Gronk’s stature, with his injury history, endorsing CBD is significant. It could represent a crossing of the Rubicon. It makes an imprint bigger than those left by the tight end’s seismic post-touchdown spikes.
Dating back to the end of his college days, Gronkowski has endured as many as nine surgeries, three on his balky back. His list of injuries solicits a cringe — ankle ligament, back, forearm, torn ACL, pulmonary contusion, concussion, and a deep thigh bruise suffered in the last game he played, Super Bowl LIII, resulting in internal bleeding.
If Gronk made the certification of CBD products a condition of his return, would it really behoove the NFL, a league that reactively changes its playing rules every offseason, to say no? Perhaps there could even be an endorsement deal. Someone would pay handsomely to be the official CBD product of the NFL. Since the NFL is the envy of all sports leagues on this continent, others would surely follow suit.
Anything benign that can keep athletes in the game is a win for all sports.