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Effort To 'Gronk Spike' NFL Cannabis Policy Gains Momentum04:58
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Rob Gronkowski spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown against the New York Jets in 2017. (Bill Kostroun/AP)
Rob Gronkowski spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown against the New York Jets in 2017. (Bill Kostroun/AP)

New England football fans will find out when the season begins Sunday whether their team feels the pain of losing star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who retired after the Patriots' latest Super Bowl win.

Gronkowski recently said he's launching a second career as a businessman and advocate for cannabis products containing the chemical CBD, which he credits with relieving his pain from a career of big hits.

Though CBD products generally don't produce the "high" associated with marijuana, athletes in the NFL and other leagues risk failing drug tests — and being suspended — if they use them.

But as Gronkowski speaks out, and as Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck joins him in early, pain-induced retirement, efforts to change attitudes and policies about cannabis appear to be gaining momentum.

At a recent Holy Cross football practice, the sport's physical demands were on display. Though the team competes in college football's second tier, and the intensity was lower than in a real game, the action was still rough enough to leave a defensive back on the ground, needing medical attention. During one blocking drill, a lineman thrust himself into a teammate with such force that he tore through one of his size-17 cleats and was carted back to the locker room to find another shoe.

"There are some big guys falling into each other, so, you know, you're always going to have a little something that you're gonna deal with," said head coach Bob Chesney.

Holy Cross does its best to keep players healthy, Chesney added. His athletes wear sensors on their backs and mouth guards implanted with chips to help monitor and limit football's toll. So, what about allowing players the option of using cannabis to treat those inevitable aches and pains?

"I see marijuana as something that is relatively harmless," he said. "It's just not right now acceptable [under] federal [law]. So, it's not even worth having that conversation until people a little higher make those decisions."

Bob Chesney coaches the Holy Cross football team against Boston College last fall. (Mary Schwalm/AP)
Bob Chesney coaches the Holy Cross football team against Boston College last fall. (Mary Schwalm/AP)

Certain cannabis products are legal under some states' laws, including Massachusetts'. But the federal ban is what matters to leagues such as the NFL and NCAA that span the country and want the same rules for everyone, according to Holy Cross sports economist Victor Matheson.

"Let's imagine marijuana really is a miracle drug that allows teams to play a lot better," he said. "Well, that means you give a huge, unfair advantage to the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, playing in places where the drug is legal."

Still, the NFL and its players' union are studying cannabis as a potential pain-management tool. The league says it cares about athletes' well-being, and there may be a business concern, too. It's not good for the NFL's bottom line when stars like Gronkowski and Luck retire in their 20s, citing excruciating pain.

Early retirements will become more common if something doesn't change, said prominent player agent Leigh Steinberg.

"Part of the promise of CBD is that it will extend the career of fan favorites," he said. "It will extend the career of players instrumental to their franchise."

Medical research supporting health claims about cannabis products like CBD remains limited. But Steinberg said he's seen benefits, firsthand.

Fifteen years ago, one of his clients was Ricky Williams, arguably the NFL's best running back at the time. Steinberg said cannabis helped Williams' body recover, during a temporary retirement in 2004. Williams also used marijuana as an active player and was suspended for an entire season because he repeatedly failed drug tests.

Former NFL running back Ricky Williams speaks at a conference on medical marijuana at Harvard Medical School in 2017. (Steven Senne/AP)
Former NFL running back Ricky Williams speaks at a conference on medical marijuana at Harvard Medical School in 2017. (Steven Senne/AP)

Williams didn't respond to an interview request, but he talked about cannabis and pain management in a 2016 documentary produced by Sports Illustrated.

"I think when the only options are Toradol or Indocin or Vicodin, that's the NFL not doing a very good job," he said. "If you're going to say we can put that poison in our bodies, but we can't put cannabis in our bodies, I don't think that's fair."

Now, Gronkowski is making the same argument and also following Williams into the cannabis business. If Gronk's message gets a warmer reception from the NFL and its fans, there may be a number of reasons, said Melissa Butler, who teaches the sociology of sport at Clark University.

For one thing, public opinion of cannabis has shifted in recent years. For another, Williams has appeared on camera, smoking joints, while Gronkowski is pitching topical ointments that don't get you high. But Butler said it is also significant that Gronkowski is white, and Williams is black.

"Black players have often been seen as threats that are told to be silent, to shut up and play; this isn't your role to be this spokesperson," Butler said. "Gronkowski is this fun-loving guy. He does a lot to legitimize it without being a threat to anybody. And that is race."

Even if Gronkowski's race helps him change perceptions of cannabis use, the NFL and other sports leagues won't have the power to change federal law. But leagues could relax their cannabis testing standards.

This segment aired on September 6, 2019.

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Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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