Two-time Super Bowl winner Chris Long has admitted that he and used cannabis for pain management while he was an NFL player, and said that players are forced turn to harmful drugs such as opioids and alcohol in the run up to a drugs test.
Long played 11 seasons in the NFL as a defensive end with the St Louis Rams, the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. After announcing his retirement last week, the 34-year-old said “a lot” of players used cannabis for pain management and said positive tests should not necessarily result in a suspension.
“I certainly enjoyed my fair share on a regular basis throughout my career. I was never afraid to say that, but I’m able to say it more explicitly now,” he said. “Listen, if not for that, I’m not as capable of coping with the stressors of day-to-day NFL life.
“We should be headed to a place where we allow players to enjoy what I would not even call a drug. It’s far less dangerous than guzzling a fifth of alcohol and going out after a game.
“I think from a standpoint of what’s safer for people and the player… it is far less harmful than alcohol. It is far less harmful than tobacco, and at various points in the league’s history, they have engaged in partnerships on different levels with those respective industries.”
Because players know when they would be tested for street drugs (once a year), he said they could stop using cannabis in the weeks running up to it. But that meant that during that time, “you’re going to reach for the sleeping pills, you’re going to reach for the pain killers and you’re going to reach for the bottle a little bit more. … If you’re serious about players not smoking, you’d be testing more often. I hope they go the opposite direction and just kind of realize how arbitrary doing that one test a year is.”
The NFL announced earlier this week that the league and the NFL Players Association have created a committee that “will establish uniform standards for club practices and policies regarding pain management and the use of prescription medication by NFL players as well as conduct research concerning pain management and alternative therapies.”
Cannabis is not performance-enhancing “in the classical sense”, according to Dr Mike Hart, medical director of a cannabis focused practice in Ontario. “It does not make athletes bigger, faster or stronger as many steroids & PEDs do. But it can decrease anxiety and fear so athletes can perform at their own personal best. “
This week the former chief medical officer of Fifa (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) said that elite footballers’ “abuse” of legal painkillers risks their health and could “potentially” have life-threatening implications.
Jiri Dvorak said that about half of players competing at the past three World Cups routinely took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, an opioid. Ibuprofen can increase your risk of fatal heart attack or stroke, especially if taken long term or in high doses. It may also cause stomach or intestinal bleeding, which can be fatal.
Dvorak says it is still an “alarming trend” among players, including teenagers. “It has become a cultural issue, part of the game. It is absolutely wrong,” added the Czech, who left Fifa in November after 22 years. “For me it’s clearly abuse of the drugs – that’s why we use the word alarming.
Dvorak made his feelings clear to Fifa in 2012 but its practices have not changed. “We have to make a strong statement for the players: wake up, and be careful,” he said. “It is not that harmless and you can’t think that you can take them like cookies. It has side-effects.”
The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – the players’ union in England – says misuse of painkillers was “not a major issue” among its members. Head of player welfare Michael Bennett said only one player had raised concerns about the misuse of painkillers directly to the PFA in the past decade.
However, three retired Premier League players have now spoken out in the media and blamed the overuse of legal anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers for enduring health problems. These include over-the-counter pills, such as ibuprofen and vitamins, as well as stronger pain-relief injections like cortisone.
Daniel Agger, former Liverpool and Denmark defender, retired in 2016 at the early age of 30 (most outfield players play until around 35). Fifteen months earlier he collapsed in the dressing room after being substituted just 29 minutes into a game. In a desperate bid to play, he had taken more than the recommended maximum dose of anti-inflammatory drugs in the week leading up to the game.
“The body could not cope with it,” he told a Danish newspaper. “I have taken too many anti-inflammatories in my career. I know that full well, and it sucks, but I did stop it [in the end]. I am not gaining anything personally from saying this but I can only hope that other athletes do.It could be that others take a pill or two less.”
Ivan Klasnic, former Bolton Wanderers and Croatia striker, suffered kidney failure while playing for German club Werder Bremen in 2007. He blamed club doctors at Werder Bremen, saying they failed to diagnose his problem in time and continued to prescribe pain-killing medication.
The doctors at the club claimed the problem was caused by genetics and not painkillers. Klasnic, now 37, was left critically ill in September after his body rejected a transplanted kidney provided by his mother.
Dominic Matteo, former Liverpool, Leeds and Scotland defender, took pain-killing injections “for years” and had to have spinal surgery two years after he retired in 2009. He said he thought under-pressure managers did not consider the long-term effect of players undergoing such treatment.
“I took pain-killing injections to play football when my body was telling me to do otherwise,” he said. “Even though the operation was a success, I don’t think I’ll ever be completely fine but hopefully I’ll be able to lift my kids again.
Last week, British cyclist Josh Edmondson told the BBC he broke the sport’s rules by secretly injecting himself with a cocktail of vitamins when riding for Team Sky.
The 24-year-old, who was on the team’s books in 2013 and 2014, also said he had severe depression after independently using the controversial painkiller Tramadol.
He said he risked giving himself a heart attack by self-administering the medication secretly at night. “In 2014 I was under a lot of pressure, not just from the team but from myself,” said Edmondson.
Many sports professionals who put their bodies through so much physical punishment will surely take note of Long’s advocacy of cannabis and consider moving off the opioid pain-killers that are presently causing them long-term harm.