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Why The Future Of Football Might Depend On Legalizing Medical Marijuana

This is the second part in a two-part series. Check out the first part here.

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 the NFL needs to change its cannabis policy and the importance of speaking out on the issue.

Here are the highlights from our chat.

Why is overturning the NFL's ban important to football?

These players really need help. And the NFL as a whole needs help in realizing that this is going to be something extremely important to help prolong the game. We're seeing more and more people now who aren't playing football. Players who are cutting their careers short. Parents who aren't letting their kids play football because of a lot of these issues. And until medicine catches up. And until we're able to create a safer environment for these players, I think it's going to adversely effect the game of football.

We saw the high-profile case of Eugene Monroe retiring early because he was worried about the game's effect on his health. But you're saying that players are giving up football much earlier in their careers.

Yeah, absolutely. Some people aren't getting involved in the game at all. Last year, I went to a private high school this year that had some injuries. And by the last game of the season, they only had fifteen players on the team that were healthy. They had to forfeit the last game. And part of it was, it was a private school. People were going there mostly for an education. But I think a lot of parents nowadays are not letting their kids play football. And it's unfortunate.

 In terms of outreach with the league, do you talk to the NFLPA or to league executives about cannabis?

Yeah, some of our players are in contact with the NFLPA. But right now our focus isn't on the league so much as the players and helping to provide treatment for the players. There's strength in numbers. Before we approach the league we want to put together as many players as possible that are supportive of this issue, and we're also to progress the studies that we're working on because  when we come to the NFL, we want to have a very solid package of information that we can provide rather than doing it piecemeal.

What's wrong with how the NFL treats sports injuries currently? What does the public need to know about it?

We try to give people an idea of what the NFL culture when it comes to getting back on the field and having to take different prescriptions that the teams are kinda pushing on players to try to get them back onto the field. And obviously these are really bandaids. They don't really help the players longterm. They get them back out and often times they're injuring themselves even more.

So a large portion of what we do is giving these guys a voice so they can really come together and feel comfortable coming out and discussing these issues publicly. And really just bringing attention and awareness to the issue. And the issue being that these players are some of the best athletes in the world. And they have access to some of the best treatment in the world, But they're being deprived of something that can give them a great benefit -- both for pain management and for brain-related issues.  

What made you, as a former college player, decide to come out of the cannabis closet and speak out on the issue?

Yeah, I played football in college and I got to see first-hand the culture as it relates to getting players back on the field and what it takes to play week-in, and week-out. When I got out, I moved to California and went to law school and ended up opening my own law practice with a focus on marijuana defense and representation.

So I started getting pretty heavily involved with the medical marijuana industry in California just through my work as an attorney. And in doing that, I started to realize there was an opportunity here to help NFL players. And that's really why we started Gridiron Cannabis Coalition. We saw players suspended for utilizing marijuana as a medicine. They're putting their careers on the line to seek an alternative form of treatment. And I just thought this was something that needs attention.

Was there a specific incident from your playing career that got you interested in cannabis advocacy?

No, I grew up in Pennsylvania. And marijuana was treated as though it was just as bad as heroin or any of the other drugs. I had some friends who got in trouble for marijuana-related issues. And that really fuelled the activist side of me. I always thought it was crazy that alcohol is legal and it causes so much harm. And something like marijuana, that causes so little harm, was illegal. So I became an advocate for marijuana legalization at an early age.

It was kind of a coincidence that my law practice ultimately focused on marijuana defense and representation. I was a prosecutor right out of law school. When I left the DA office and opened my own law practice, one of the first cases was a medical marijuana case. I had some success and realized that there was really a need for attorneys to focus on medical marijuana representation.

Then I saw the opportunity to work with football players. My father [Ralph Cindrich] played in the NFL and was a sports agent for over 30 years and was named one of the most powerful people in sports a few years in a row. So I grew up exposed to NFL players, going to Super Bowls, spending time with their families. The NFL in general is something very close to me. And I think it all came together based on my career as a lawyer, working with medical marijuana patients. And then ultimately seeing this as a benefit for football players.


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