The NFL’s new chief medical officer admits that the league needs to take a serious look at how marijuana could potentially be used as a pain-management tool for players, and acknowledged that last week’s CTE study from Boston University was an important piece of research and that there was a link between repetitive head trauma and the degenerative brain disease.
And while both those might sound like common-sense opinions, they’re not the same as the words that have always come from league officials on these topics.
During an interview with Mark Maske of the Washington Post, Dr. Allen Sills, a neurosurgeon from Vanderbilt University who was hired by the league in March, made a number of points that sounded downright progressive from previous league stances.
On marijuana, he said it was “really important” for the league and the NFLPA to find out how safe and effective marijuana could be.
“I think we have a lot more to learn about that,” Sills said. “Certainly the research about marijuana and really more particularly cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to the treatment of both acute and chronic pain, that is an area of research that we need a lot more information on and we need to further develop.
“I think that’s part of what we hope to accomplish together working together with the Players Association. I think this is really important because I like to talk about that our approach to caring for players is really holistic. We want to talk about health and safety issues that affect the whole player experience. And certainly pain management is a big part of that.”
That’s a departure from previous NFL remarks, though commissioner Roger Goodell has gone from saying marijuana was “addictive and unhealthy” to something that deserved more study. But Sills pointed to what some believe is a national opioid crisis, and suggested that the problem was much larger than football alone.
He also said last week’s study from Boston University — which found CTE in 110 of the 111 brains donated from former NFL players — was a solid step forward for the league’s efforts, and that it was “very clear that there are long-term health risks associated with repetitive head injuries.”
“I think this is another important contribution from the Boston University group,” Sills said. “They’ve obviously been a leader in this space and helping to define and describe the pathology of CTE. And I think it’s another important piece of this puzzle that we’re trying to put together. I think that I like to describe CTE [as] it really is a puzzle where we’re trying to assimilate pieces to better understand it, because there’s so much we don’t understand with regard to causation and incidence and who’s exactly at risk, and what are the risk factors and what things might we modify and certainly treatment. So we have a lot left to learn. But this is obviously another key piece as we move forward.”
The NFL hasn’t always been on the same page, with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said it was “absurd” to connect football and CTE because “medicine is evolving,” while league executive Jeff Miller had acknowledged to congress the link existed.
But Sills is talking like a doctor, and in the case of two of the league’s most important issues, that’s probably as solid a step as players could hope for.