The money will be split between two universities, the University of California, San Diego in the US, and the University of Regina in Canada.
Both universities will explore how specific cannabinoids can support professional football players in their recovery from various injuries, including those related to concussions. Researchers will also look at how cannabis use might potentially help reduce prescription medication use, including opioids.
Many international and national professional sports organisations are strong opponents of cannabis use, even in places where cannabis has been legalised. While there are some in the sports world who are starting to warm up to CBD, the NFL is the first big player to explore the potential benefits of not only CBD but also THC (a cannabinoid that has intoxicating effects).
Researchers from the University of California will run clinical trials to explore the effects of cannabinoids on pain resulting from sports-related injuries, as well as the impact cannabinoids have on different recovery processes.
This is more relevant than ever, as the NFL saw a significant increase in injuries following the inactivity and cancellation in the sport as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of injuries of players in Major League Baseball nearly doubled compared to what it was during pre-pandemic times.
The University of Regina will also explore the relationship between cannabinoids, pain management and neuroprotection from concussions, including those resulting from contact sports.
This is not surprising as it is very easy to suffer from a concussion when playing sports professionally. Concussions may occur when there is a direct blow to the head, face or neck. Concussions can even happen when there is a direct blow or point of impact elsewhere on the body, but only when the force is so strong that it reaches the head.
For about a decade now, the sports medicine field has focused on finding better ways to deal with concussions, concussion-related injuries, as well as supporting athletes in quick and safe recovery. Is cannabis the treatment of the future?
Pain and long recovery that are often associated with injuries and concussions can sideline the best players, keeping them out of action and off the field for a while. This can have a detrimental effect on the entire team.
Currently, many athletes use opioids to speed up recovery and deal with pain. In the NFL alone, it is believed that 52% of players have used opioids at some point in their career, and 72% of them reported misuse. However, long-term opioid use has been linked to several side effects that might significantly decline the health-related quality of life. Therefore, an alternative with fewer side effects would be very welcome in the sports industry.
Is cannabis the answer? The NFL is trying to find out by letting scientists explore the impact CBD and THC might have on athletes, and depending on the results, see if there are any alternatives to the treatment with opioids.
The study aims to see whether the two most prominent cannabinoids - CBD and THC, can be a safe and effective alternative to the prescribed medications currently being used for athletes suffering from injuries and concussions.
As a bonus, scientists are also looking at what role cannabinoids can play in preventing and decreasing the severity of concussions in professional football players by exploring the potential neuroprotective properties of cannabinoids.
This will be done while simultaneously observing and assessing any potential side effects.
The research will be done on real-life athletes in real-time.
For example, athletes participating in the pain-management study will be divided into four different groups, with each group being exposed to different cannabinoids.
One group will use delta-9 THC, another will use CBD, the third group will use a mix of CBD & THC, and the last group will be the placebo group. The athletes will be required to vaporise the tested substances when suffering a game-related injury and then use phone apps to monitor the outcomes.
Scientists can then study the data, and hopefully, the results will help contribute to the growing number of studies that are exploring the connection between cannabis and pain.
Even though the NFL is financing the study, NFL players will not be participating in the study. Instead, other, carefully selected elite athletes will be the subjects of the study.
The current NFL cannabis rules are not as strict as you might think. While players with positive THC drug tests would have been suspended in the past, now they face a fine instead.
Additionally, the NFL is very clear about when and how often they test. For example, the newest rule says that off-season NFL players are no longer tested for THC until the preseason, meaning they can use cannabis freely for a certain period. This is very forward-thinking for any sports organisation.
The threshold of triggering a positive test result has also risen.
This liberalisation of NFL laws might come as a shock, especially when looking at the case of Sha’Carri Richardson who tested positive for marijuana. However, according to one former NFL player, as much as 80% of players use cannabis.
The life of a professional athlete puts the body under a lot of pressure and demands, both physically and mentally, and some athletes believe that using cannabis helps them feel better and perform better at their jobs.
While there are no official numbers on how many NFL players use cannabis, conversations about cannabis must be happening in the NFL locker rooms, and the NFL is most certainly listening.