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Calvin Johnson takes the field for a play against the Green Bay Packers

Photo Credit: Mike Morbeck via Wikimedia Commons 

Last week, former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (nicknamed Megatron) caused a stir in sports media by admitting he would smoke marijuana after almost every game he played starting in 2007 until the end of his career in 2015. 

Johnson, who for most of his career was considered the best receiver in the league, used the drug medicinally to deal with the severe pain experienced by many who play professional football. In addition to concussions, Johnson once injured his foot, ankle, and both of his knees all in one year. Although cannabis is prohibited by both the World Anti-Doping Agency and the National Football League, Johnson was never punished for violating the league’s ban.

Among the media’s most vocal critics of players using marijuana is ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith. On the show “First Take” Smith argued that he had no objection to marijuana being used medicinally, but added that players who take it a step further and use it recreationally do so at risk of losing focus on their NFL careers or six or seven figure salaries. 

Smith’s cohost Max Kellerman and guest moderator Rosalyn Gold-Onwude were quick to respond, contending that the NFL’s policy should adapt regardless of recreational use to deter players from using opioids and make it easier for them to remain safe.

During his time with the Lions, Johnson complained that opioid abuse was clearly visible. 

In an interview with “Sports Illustrated” Megatron recalled, “You really could go in the training room and get what you wanted. I can get Vicodin, I can get Oxy[Contin]. It was too available. I used Percocet and stuff like that. And I did not like the way that made me feel. I had my preferred choice of medicine. Cannabis.”

For Johnson and many others, marijuana seemed like a much safer alternative to highly addictive and potentially dangerous opioids.

Cannabis has even been used on occasion to improve an athlete’s performance. Athletes like bodybuilders have admitted to smoking marijuana in order to reduce soreness, and runners have used it to relax and loosen up. Runners also claim it can better induce runner’s joy and decrease distraction.

The Beckley Foundation reports that significant research has focused on the psychological benefits, such as reducing anxiety and promoting better sleep, cannabis gives to athletes. Although the effects of the drug are not usually associated with high levels of physical performance, research has also shown that after exercise, the body naturally produces high levels of a cannabinoid called anandamide, which could be mimicked by ingesting cannabis.

This being said, it is worth noting in detail the negative effects of marijuana. For many, cannabis can impair short-term memory, decrease alertness, lower reaction time, accelerate muscle fatigue, or cause extreme anxiety or paranoia. 

The effects of opioids — which can depress the respiratory system, cause severe dependence, and risk overdose — are much more dangerous than cannabis, but the dangers of marijuana usage are still real.

Even when taking an edible form of marijuana, users can frequently misjudge the strength of what they ingest, resulting in more acute side effects, which may include vomiting. 

Still, smoking marijuana is even more dangerous. Inhaling smoke into one’s lungs is never beneficial and will suppress the immune system, risking, among many conditions, lower respiratory-tract infections and chronic bronchitis. Marijuana smoke also contains a number of carcinogens, though not to the degree of tobacco. Still, as Max Kellerman points out, cigar paper is often used when smoking marijuana and contains high traces of nicotine, which heightens its addictive potential.

Regardless, when fighting the pain of playing in the NFL, whether it be Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) or another injury, marijuana is comparatively safer than other alternatives, and often necessary.

Kellerman reported that many players, such as his colleague Marcellus Wiley, could not get out of bed on Mondays or Tuesdays after games and had to keep a bottle by their beds because they could not walk to the bathroom. To deal with the pain, Wiley said he was given pills like Vioxx, which is stronger than Advil but was banned after just five years by the NFL because it increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

“You don’t know what you’re taking, how to pronounce it, you don’t have any pamphlets or brochures,” he said. “We’re not medical students.”

Robert Sims, Johnson’s former roommate, believes that “99% of football players have some form of CTE.” Together with Sims, Johnson and his wife, Brittney, have started a medical marijuana business in southeastern Michigan that aims to help players plan for their careers after football. 

Recently, their company partnered with an institute at Harvard to research the benefits of medical marijuana, including ways it can treat cancer cells in patients.

Though the NFL has been very stringent in the past on marijuana usage, it has taken measures this past offseason to explore mental health and assess pain management alternatives to painkillers. To combat mental illness and depression, the NFL has mandated a mental health practitioner for each team, but as more players, both former and active, are turning to marijuana, the NFL still has a way to go in turning away from opioids.

Calvin Johnson suffered at least nine concussions while he played in the NFL. He recalled to reporter Michael Rosenberg, "Bam, hit the ground real hard. I'm seeing stars; I can't see straight […] But I know in a couple minutes I'm gonna be fine. Because I've done that plenty of times before."

Whether marijuana helps performance, anxiety, or physical pain, Johnson now aims to help remedy a harmful lifestyle of chemical dependence, to which too few football players know they are heading. When Megatron retired, many said that he gave up football much earlier than he could have. It is now becoming clear, however, that no player can retire early enough.

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