While the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons line up this weekend to fight for the Vince Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl 51, the behind-the-scenes fight for the players' rights to use marijuana medicinally continues. Retired players like Eugene Monroe argue that cannabis is a safer and more effective treatment for game-related injuries than NFL-approved prescription painkillers that can lead to opiate addiction. But the NFL still prohibits players form using cannabis medicinally or recreationally.

But players like Monroe are getting backup from the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition -- a marijuana advocacy group speaking up for athletes. We spoke to Michael Cindrich -- co-founder of GCC -- ahead of Super Bowl 51 to find out what why players want to use medical marijuana and what it'll take for the NFL to lift its cannabis ban.

Here are the highlights from our chat. 

For people who aren't familiar with your group, could you give me a quick rundown of what the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition is?

Sure, we're an organization that's dedicated to advancing medical cannabis as a treatment option for current and former NFL players. Our platform is focused on education and treatment. And really what we've been doing is having active and retired players get together and come out of the closet regarding their medical marijuana use -- while they were playing or during their post-career.

Do you think that the NFL is a safe place for an active player to stand up and speak out on cannabis? It seems like a risky thing to do given rumors that Eugene Monroe was cut from the Baltimore Ravens for becoming a cannabis advocate.

I think that they do face potential repercussions. It's a very sensitive issue. Teams in general don't want distractions in the locker room. If you have players openly coming forward and basically calling the league out on its failure to allow this legitimate medicine for its players, it's a potential distraction. And often times coaches and owners don't want that. So it can absolutely have an adverse impact on the player.  

How do you combat that message that advocacy is a distraction? 

Our message is that these guys are risking their bodies and their brains and their futures playing in the league. And the league has a duty to provide the best medicine to them. And right now the league is failing in that. So players should speak up. Because this is their future.

How do you reach out to individual players?

We reach out to players that we've seen having issues. Obviously when players fail tests and get suspended, it's widely publicized. So we've reached out to some of them. We've utilized some of the players that are part of our organization to contact people that they may have played with -- friends who are either former or current players and are interested in this issue. We also host events throughout the United States. We attend cannabis conferences with players. We attend panels and that creates publicity and awareness. And really it allows players to contact us. I'd say the majority of the players that we come into contact with have actually contacted us first. 

Can you give me an example of that kind of peer-to-peer outreach, one player contacting another?

Sure, we were talking to Eugene Monroe for a while. It turns out that another player we were working closely with was also friends with Eugene -- Eben Britton. So in discussing with one individual, we always say, 'Hey, is there anyone else that you know of that would be interested in what we're doing?' These guys always have a long list. It's not something that these guys publicize to their teams. But they generally get to know the other guys that are also using for medicinal purposes. And often these guys are the ones that are most eager to get involved with our organization because they face having to hide it and risking their jobs for something that they were using to protect their bodies.

Does it make it easier for them to talk about it with another player instead of an activist?

Absolutely.

Do you think fans are aware of this issue? Last fall, Will Smith expressed disappointment that his movie 'Concussion' didn't prompt fans to call out the league over player safety. 

I think they are concerned. And they're starting to realize that you want to see the best players on the field, and you want to see them play for as long as possible. And as people start seeing their favorite players suspended for marijuana tests, or leaving the game because they want to protect their bodies, it's starting to impact the fans and their perception of this issue.

What do you say when people ask why players should use medical marijuana instead of NFL-approved medications?

Well, first off, we have an opiate epidemic in our country right now. People are becoming addicted. People are overdosing and dying. And in states where marijuana is legal, we've seen a decrease in opiate overdose deaths. So I think the proof is in the numbers. We're seeing that this is a legitimate alternative to opiates. And it's something that's extremely important. We need to advance different treatments for pain-related issues. And marijuana is proving to be a great alternative to opiates.

If a fan asked you what they could do to help the players get access to that medicine, what would you say?

I would just say be vocal about it. Contact the league. Contact your team. It may seem like one letter may not do much. But if you have a lot of people putting letters together and sending them to their teams, there's strength in numbers. 

What do you think it'll take for the NFL to remove their marijuana ban completely?

I think it's gonna take some more science. I think we're gonna have to progress the studies so that the NFL can really see -- without question -- that this is a legitimate medicinal treatment. I believe that we are there already. But obviously the NFL doesn't think that we're there yet. So I think we need a little more credibility because so many of these studies are so new. There's going to be strength in numbers. We just need more studies and more data. And ultimately we need it in a form that can be presented to the NFL so that it can't be disputed that marijuana is a legitimate medicine. And that it's something that can help these players.

Do you think that the federal government needs to recognize marijuana as medicine first, or do you think the NFL might come out slightly ahead?

I think the NFL could come out slightly ahead. The NFL doesn't have to openly adopt a policy allowing marijuana use. But they can decide to stop testing for marijuana. And I think that is ultimately going to be the first step and an important step.

And that may change perceptions of marijuana in mainstream America given that the NFL is such a huge cultural industry.

Absolutely. And I think if the federal government does make a change, then I think it will help prompt the NFL to address their policies. 

This is the end of the first part of this story. Check back tomorrow for part two.