It’s that time of year when we gather around our big-screen TVs, pick a team to root for, and cheer on America’s heroes of the gridiron as they go head to head on Super Bowl Sunday. One of our nation’s most vaunted and celebrated pastimes, we take our football very seriously. But with the recent spotlight on brain injuries resulting from the sport, it’s time we took the health of our heroes seriously, too. In clinical research surrounding the effects of therapeutic cannabinoids on brain disease, former NFL players could play a vital role as test subjects in the field. The newly formed Gridiron Cannabis Coalition is advocating for cannabis-based medicine and the positive difference it can make — not just for pro athletes but for millions of Americans — in the future of brain health.
The game of football brings the brutal collisions of 300-pound armored men of muscle and bone into the homes and barrooms of America. The television eye also reveals the physical and neurological impacts of the game on its players.
Some of the National Football League’s best former players and a growing number of researchers think it is time for the league to allow cannabis-based medicine for both retired players as well as for athletes playing now.
One of the most effective voices for the changes is Kyle Turley, an NFL All-Pro selection in 2000, a veteran of the St. Louis Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints, and a college All-American at San Diego State University.
At 6-foot 5-inches and 300 pounds during his playing career, Turley, at 40 years old, still looks like the powerful offensive tackle that he was.
Today, instead of taking on similarly sized defensive lineman, he’s taking on head trauma and, to a significant degree, his former employers in the NFL.
He has been active with several organizations, but about six months ago helped found the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, an organization devoted to getting safe and legal cannabis-based products to active and former professional athletes, especially those NFL players who may have suffered brain trauma.
“Basically we want to be a service provider for athletes in the (football) industry,” Turley explains. “We are organizing our guys. We can coordinate, unite and network together. There is strength in numbers.”
Former professional football players face a host of medical problems, not only brain trauma but also orthopedic dysfunction, chronic pain, heart disease and other diseases.
“Anything and everything under the sun,” Turley says, describing the maladies suffered by former NFL stars. “The sport of football is not one that is associated with good health.”
Like his colleagues, Turley once consumed a chemical salad of pharmaceuticals, including pain and emotional management prescriptions, going back to his playing days. He was no drug addict – Turley has never, for example, been an alcohol drinker – but prescription drugs were the cost of the bodily punishment he experienced as a player.
Researchers and physicians, as well as players like Turley, fear that sometimes these prescription medications can actually make long-term conditions worse for active and retired players. Pain medications have been implicated in cognitive problems.
For active players, pain meds can help them play through injuries – but that carries its own significant price.
“In my own experience, prescription narcotics, in the 20-year span of my sports career, made these injuries worse,” Turley says. “They masked the pain so I could continue to participate but the damage continues.”
About a year ago Turley turned to cannabis-based medications to control his anxiety and pain – and he is now completely off traditional pharmaceuticals, he says.
“Doctors are prescribing medications for all these injuries, orthopedic or neurological, that have very serious side effects,” Turley explains. “It’s been a real tragedy that athletes have not had a choice to use these (cannabis-based) medicines that provide real benefits without the side effects.”
One of Turley’s companions in the quest to make cannabis-based medical products available for NFL athletes – and, of course, all others – is former NFL linebacker Marvin Washington, who says that neurological damage due to concussions has been the cost of playing football. It is, he says, “an industrial disease.”
It is an issue that has moved into the spotlight due to lawsuits and as the subject of award-winning exposés in The New Yorker and “Frontline” on PBS. It is the subject of a-list Hollywood movie “Concussion” starring Will Smith that dramatizes intimidation directed at one of the first serious researchers to tie crippling brain damage of former players to on-the-field collisions.
And always, there are the stories of once-celebrated athletes reduced to confused, angry and sometimes suicidal shells of their former selves, men like Hall of Famer Junior Seau, an all-star NFL linebacker with the San Diego Chargers who, at age 43, committed suicide at his home, or Mike Webster, who played as a center for ı6 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers and also made it to the Hall of Fame. After his retirement in ı990, Webster lived out of his pickup truck and suffered dementia, amnesia and other profound physical and cognitive problems. He died at age 50.
Webster was the first former player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) by Dr. Bennet Omalu, whose discoveries are chronicled in “Concussion.” Many other former players have since been diagnosed with CTE. In September, Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs released a study that found 96 percent of former NFL players they examined suffered from CTE. Additionally, men who played football in high school or college also suffered brain trauma, the researcher found.
The NFL initially was criticized for responding slowly and even with hostility to the medical problems of many of its veterans, but today recognizes that it has a serious problem. It has instituted a serious of rule changes designed to make it harder for players to deliver the kind of skull-jarring shocks that lead to chronic neurological damage. The League has also adopted a regimen that removes players from the game when a concussion is suspected – although somehow players who appear to have concussions or other injuries still remain in the game.
Turley believes that not only can medical cannabis help former NFL players – and other athletes, and veterans, as well as those affected by brain and body injuries – but it can help existing players as well. That’s a tough sell for the NFL, which has since the ı980s had a tough anti-marijuana policy.
Turley and the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, though, have teamed up with a New York-based company called Kannalife Sciences that is in the process of developing federally regulated, cannabis-based drugs to treat chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the kidney disease that contributes to brain disease.
Dean Petkanas, Kannalife chief executive officer, says the use of therapeutic cannabinoids have great promise for treating both orthopedic and neurological problems, but companies like his have a tough road to getting drugs approved by the federal government and medical establishment. He emphasizes that his company’s products will be fully regulated pharmaceuticals, unlike products available in the legal medical cannabis markets now.
One end goal is neural protection, he says. If all goes well, the company could have products reviewed and approved by 20ı8 or 2020.
Turley’s group could play a vital role in providing the test subjects for clinical studies that Kannalife needs for its research.
“We’re starting to talk about a clinical protocol,” Petkanas says. “We’re hoping that we can work together, because they (the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition) have some real credibility in the market… These guys are going to be able to produce screened enrollees at the right time.”
Turley hopes that the heroes of the gridiron will be heroes in the testing and approval of cannabis-based medicine that will make a positive difference for millions of Americans.
“The more we understand the things that cannabis can do, the more we realize that cannabis is the medicine that should be prescribed for neurological issues,” Turley says. “The military, athletes, the things that we have experienced, unfortunately, through our career choices, we can really change
His own experience, free of negative side effects for a year, is Turley’s proof that cannabis works.
“It is night and day different,” Turley enthuses. “I am ı00 percent relieved of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. I have had no rage for a year now. I’m able to drive again in the daytime and at night, to go to the movies, which I hadn’t been able to do for seven years.
“I know the truth. I know what happened to me playing football. I understand there is a medicine that deals with these injuries better than any medicine I’ve ever been prescribed.”