Thanks to retired NFL players Ricky WIlliams, Kyle Turley and other players who have become cannabis advocates, we know that active players commonly use marijuana to treat the physical and psychological aches and pains caused by playing pro football - even even though the league prohibits cannabis.
But this past weekend, we learned that players have been using marijuana much longer than you might have thought - even longer than it's been legal for medical use in certain American states. At a Feb. 28 panel, titled "Cannabis and Athletics," at the Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon talked about himself and other teammates using cannabis during his playing days.
"Mike Ditka [legendary Bears coach] would say, 'Oh, all you guys, you pot smokers,' That's what he'd call us. 'You pot smokers.' " McMahon told attendees at the event in Fort Worth, Texas. "We'd say, 'It's better than being drunk out here. We're still functioning.'"
McMahon played for the Bears from 1982-1988, so he and his teammates had stumbled on the medical benefits of marijuana at least eight years before California became the first state to legally recognize its medicinal benefits in 1996.
But the NFL hasn't caught on yet, despite numerous calls for them to allow players to use marijuana instead of other medications. During his playing days, McMahon found cannabis more helpful than the prescription painkillers being handed out to players. He told the crowd that he was, "pretty much eating painkillers my whole career."
"I couldn't sleep," he said of the side effects caused by those pills. "Going to the bathroom - those things'll lock you up [constipate]. You won't be able to go to the bathroom for weeks at a time. They're not good for you. But I've never had any side effects from smoking herb or even the edibles....It's a medicinal herb. It's not a drug. When we get over the stigma of that, I think we'll be better off in this country."
Since retiring, medical marijuana has helped McMahon deal with the lingering effects of his playing career:
"I have arthritis pretty much in all my joints," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram prior to the panel. "My head problems have been pretty severe at times. [Marijuana] makes all that pain go away. I just forget about the pain."
It also helps treat the psychological side effects from suffering repeated brain trauma, which is common among athletes in contact sports. McMahon likely suffers from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain condition that can't be diagnosed prior to a postmortem. His treatments, which include daily cannabis use, help manage his symptoms even though they can't fix the condition.
"They can't reverse the damage done," he said, "but at least they can keep you from having suicidal thoughts and the sharp pains in my head."
But even though McMahon was ahead of his time when it came to using cannabis medicinally, he says he's "old school" in the way he enjoys the herb: "I love the smell of it. I love the taste of it. So I smoke it quite a bit."