Marijuana looks more like a costly bargaining chip than reality for NFL players

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2011, file photo, an NFL logo is displayed on the Ford Field turf before an NFL football game between the Detroit Lions and the Carolina Panthers in Detroit. Google has been holding talks with the National Football League, raising speculation that the internet monolith is seeking new inroads into television. With Google sitting on a cash pile of $48 billion, the league's Sunday Ticket package is easily within its budget. The contract is currently held by DirecTV, but it expires at the end of the 2014 season. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
The collective-bargaining agreement between players and NFL owners expires at the end of the 2020 season. (AP)

At first blush, it’s tempting to look at the NFL’s recent decision to team up with the NFLPA for a “Joint Pain Management Committee” — which will include researching marijuana as a pain management tool for players — and think, “Hey, we could be staring at a weed-friendly league in the not-too-distant future!”

To that, I offer caution. Let’s first see how the upcoming labor fight plays out.

Not that I have anything against the potential “deregulation” of marijuana on the league-wide level. Pain and professional football go hand in hand like Bobby Axelrod and Wags on “Billions.” Spend an entire season covering an NFL team, and you’ll notice that by November, almost every player in the locker room is walking a little slower than normal, or bandaged up somewhere, or favoring a body part or two.

Talk to players privately, and they’ll scoff at the fact that the league conducts marijuana tests; as a pain-management tool, plenty believe it’s far more preferable to some than the bevy of opioids and painkillers teams used to (and in some cases, still do) give out.

But rarely, if ever, do current players cop to that on the record because commissioner Roger Goodell has gained a reputation for administering discipline like a power-hungry sheriff in the Old West. As Ezekiel Elliott found out last summer, a player doesn’t even need to be charged with a crime to be suspended by the NFL. All you need to do is make the league look bad.

So current players keep their mouths shut about a still-controversial topic, so as not to invite unnecessary scrutiny or become a dreaded “distraction.”

Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles, winner of the Walter Peyton NFL man of the year award, poses in the press room at the 8th Annual NFL Honors at The Fox Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, in Atlanta. (Photo by AJ Mast/Invision for NFL/AP Images)
On a radio interview, Chris Long, last year's Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winner, said this about marijuana: 'I'm not a dry snitch. I’m not going to put a percentage on how much the league smokes, but I certainly enjoyed my fair share on a regular basis throughout my career.' (AP)

Please believe, however, when former NFL defensive end Chris Long — an 11-year veteran before his retirement in May — copped to smoking his “fair share on a regular basis” late last month, he was hardly alone. Other former players have chimed in on the topic too in recent years, including Eugene Monroe, Ricky Williams and David Irving.

And here’s the thing: the higher-ups in the league office believe that a decent chunk of players want it. And what’s the one thing we know the NFL is, more than anything else?

A business.

And what might a smart business do with a looming labor fight coming after the 2020 season?

Float out negotiating chips in hopes of gaining something in return.

I’m not saying the NFL’s decision-makers are oblivious to exploring safer pain-management alternatives, and better wellness and mental health treatment for players. After all, it’s in their economic interest to do so, especially after the league has been sued by ex-players for damages brought on by team-aided use of opioids and painkillers.

But the players better protect themselves in case it’s all a big hustle, and there is some evidence to suggest that it is. For one, Goodell’s stance on marijuana use among players has seemed to change depending on the day. What’s more, the NFLPA started its own pain management committee in 2017, one in which it began looking into marijuana use as a possible treatment. The union also invited the NFL to be a part of it back then, only for the league to (finally) jump aboard now. What took so long?

A cynic might point to the looming labor fight once the current collective-bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season. The truth is this: historically, when the NFL concedes something, it wants something in return. For the NFLPA, there’s a legitimate question about what it’ll have to give up two years from now to win this weed battle.

For instance: Is the “decriminalization” of marijuana worth giving up a share of 47 percent of the league’s total revenue? Is it worth caving on a potential hot-button topic like stadium credits, which would reserve a portion of the league’s revenue for the construction of new stadiums (and save team owners a ton of money in the process)? Or how about an 18-game season? Players shudder at the thought of that like Drake pondering a new Pusha T diss.

A good case can be made that the answer to all three questions is a resounding “no,” especially since — drumroll, please — players who have never had a drug violation get tested for it only once a year between April 20 (dead serious) and Aug. 9.

What’s more, it takes 35 nanograms of marijuana in someone’s system to trigger a positive test (which prevents triggering a positive test for second-hand smoke), and players currently don’t face suspension until their fourth failed test.

To the marijuana supporters in the league, it isn’t quite ideal, as Major League Baseball has a higher threshold of 50 nanograms, for example. But NFL players have some leeway there, as long as they keep their marijuana use in check during the summer.

And when you throw in the fact there are other, more lucrative topics the NFLPA might be best served pushing for — like getting rid of the archaic funding rule, the elimination of which could increase the number of Kirk Cousins-like, fully guaranteed contracts we see in the future — it’s easy to see the “decriminalization” of marijuana use potentially fading to the background during the next labor negotiation.

In the meantime, proponents of expanded marijuana usage will take heart in the fact the notoriously stodgy NFL is willing to explore the possibility. It’s a step in the right direction, and an indication that one day, players will be able to smoke freely. But predicting how long it will take to get there depends entirely on how much faith you have in a historically business-first league suddenly choosing to do the “right” thing instead of the thing that would make it the most money: which, undoubtedly, would be to pushing the weed issue to the forefront, all in hopes of getting something even more lucrative in return from the players down the road.

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