Just days ahead of the Super Bowl, the National Football League (NFL) announced the award of $1 million in funding for two teams of medical researchers tasked with investigating the effects of cannabinoids in pain management and their potential for neuroprotection from concussion in “elite football players.” The move represents a breakthrough given the NFL’s longstanding zero-tolerance stance on cannabis use.
The award follows a first request for research proposals issued by the Pain Management Committee (PMC), jointly overseen by the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). Issued by the PMC in June 2021, the call for proposals resulted in over 100 submissions. Using the National Institutes of Health (NIH) standards for evaluating proposals, the NFL Research & Innovation Committee then narrowed the field to 10 finalists who gave oral presentations and provided written materials to the Committee. In the end, the award went to teams from the University of California at San Diego and Canada’s University of Regina.
“As with the league’s broader approach to health and safety, we want to ensure that our players are receiving care that reflects the most up-to-date medical consensus,” Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL chief medical officer, said in a press release. “While the burden of proof is high for NFL players who want to understand the impact of any medical decision on their performance, we are grateful that we have the opportunity to fund these scientifically-sound studies on the use of cannabinoids that may lead to the discovery of data-based evidence that could impact the pain management of our players.”
Two Studies for ‘Elite Athletes’
The first of the studies, “Effects of Cannabinoids on Pain and Recovery from Sports-Related Injuries in Elite Athletes,” will be a randomized clinical trial led by doctors Thomas Marcotte and Mark Wallace at UC San Diego. According to the NFL’s Feb. 1 press release, the primary aim of this study is to assess the therapeutic efficacy and possible adverse impacts of CBD and Delta-9 THC, both individually and in combination, compared to placebo, “for relief of post-competition soft-tissue injury pain in elite athletes.”
The press release says that “elite athletes will vaporize treatments following game-related injuries,” with outcomes monitored via remote phone apps. The results will be crunched by a research team including personnel from UCSD’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, which has been undertaking such studies in the field for years.
“Our team is excited to receive this funding to conduct a systematic, ‘real-world, real-time’ study with professional athletes, and which should shed further light upon the many anecdotal reports that cannabis is helpful in reducing post-competition pain,” says Dr. Wallace, director of the Center for Pain Medicine at UC San Diego Health.
The second study, “Naturally Produced Cannabinoids for Pain Management and Neuroprotection from Concussion and Participation in Contact Sports,” is to be led by Dr. J. Patrick Neary at the University of Regina. It will explore the efficacy and safety of CBD and THC specifically to reduce the use of prescription medications such as opioids to treat post-concussion syndrome. It will also assess the potential neuroprotective properties of cannabinoids to reduce the severity of acute and chronic concussions in professional football players. The research team will include neurophysiologists, clinical psychologists and physicians with experience in both concussion pathology and medical cannabis research.
“The prevention and treatment of concussions is at the core of my research,” says Dr. Neary, who is a physiologist with the Faculty of Kinesiology & Health Studies at the University of Regina. “That’s why I am excited to have the support of the NFL on this project. Our interdisciplinary research team believes that different cannabinoid formulations found in medical cannabis have the potential to benefit athletes suffering from the acute and long-term chronic effects of concussions. Our research will also work to show that cannabinoids can be used as an alternative to opioids for pain management. Ultimately, this study has the potential to change not only the lives of current and former NFL players, but also the lives of anyone who may suffer from a concussion.”
Pressure From Players
In comments picked up by ESPN, cannabis researcher Dr. Kevin Hill of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who is a co-chair of the Pain Management Committee, made clear that the NFL is responding to pressure from the players themselves.
“We’ve heard from the teams, from the medical staffs, from the players loud and clear that they’re interested in cannabis and cannabinoids, so we wanted to do something that would advance the science in this area so that we could have better informed conversations with them,” Hill said. “I also want to emphasize that this is the first step here. The NFL has done great research in other areas: concussions, musculoskeletal injuries, etc. We’re not limited just to cannabinoids. We’re interested in figuring out, are there ways that we can treat pain better?”
However, the NFL press release is quick to emphasize that while results of the studies “may inform alternative pain management strategies,” they will have no impact on the “Policy & Program on Substances of Abuse” in place under the current NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement. Therefore, NFL cannabis use rules remain firm, and “elite professional athletes outside of the NFL will be participating in the studies funded under this award. NFL players are not permitted to participate.”
Cannabis remains a banned substance in the NFL, although testing requirements and rules on NFL players’ personal cannabis use were loosened in the latest collective bargaining agreement. Under the new deal, players who test positive for cannabis are no longer suspended, although they can be fined after a sufficient number of positive tests. Timing of testing was also changed to the first two weeks of training camp, rather than from April through August. Additionally, the threshold needed to trigger a positive test was raised fourfold.
Despite this loosening of the rules, the two NFL-funded studies will actually be using players from USA Major League Rugby—a point not made clear in the NFL press release. A press release on the study from UC San Diego Health does say “the randomized, double-blind trial will involve testing and monitoring of professional rugby players.”
Reached for comment by Cannabis Now, UCSD’s Dr. Wallace says: “We chose rugby for feasibility. It is not feasible for us to use NFL players at this time, and the University of California San Diego has close ties to the professional rugby community. We hope that this study will lead to a larger study in NFL players.”