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Posted on December 7, 2016 at 3:45 AM

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Seantrel Henderson is a 24-year-old player on The National Football League’s (NFL) Buffalo Bills. Henderson is currently suspended from playing in the NFL because for the second time he has violated the league’s substance abuse policy. The NFL bans performance enhancing drugs such as steroids as well as illicit drugs like cocaine. Henderson is facing suspension for his use of marijuana. A third violation of the league’s substance abuse policy would permanently ban Henderson from playing in the NFL. Henderson’s case is slightly different than many of the sensationalized stories about players’ use of drugs to have unfair access to victory or players’ recreational drug use. Henderson uses marijuana to help with the sometimes debilitating effects of Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease is an incurable inflammatory disorder that affects the gastrointestinal tract. It can cause chronic diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, weight loss, sleeplessness, and fatigue. Henderson has had approximately 2.5 feet of his large intestine surgically removed and as a result he had to wear an ileostomy bag for four months. In another surgery Henderson had his remaining intestines reattached. After this surgery Henderson was able to begin the process of getting healthy, which included gaining back the 50 pounds he lost and getting back to playing condition, which he eventually did.

The NFL does understand that some players may need to take some drugs for medical purposes that are banned. Players can take the proper steps to apply for a Therapeutic Usage Exemption (TUE), which would make them exempt from some banned drugs. Although when a player applies for a TUE it is not guaranteed that he will be granted an exemption, marijuana is absolutely not a drug in which players can be exempt.

Henderson recognizes the unique situation he is in. According to the Henderson, “I’ve got doctors telling me this is the No. 1 medicine that would help your disease. You try to tell that to the league and it seems like they didn’t care too much.” Henderson does have a prior history of using marijuana recreationally, however, since he has been in the NFL he has complied and passed all drug tests. Henderson’s situation forces the question, should the NFL expand their TUE policy to include medical use of marijuana?

We should take into account what the research says about using marijuana to minimize the pain associated with Crohn’s disease when considering the NFL’s TUE policy. There is some research that concludes that marijuana can offer some help with the effects of Crohn’s disease, including improvements in BMI and disease activity index. But marijuana is still banned by the NFL. Other support for using marijuana to help with Crohn’s disease seems to be anecdotal. Although the research may be minimal and some evidence is simply personal testimonies, Henderson does have a medical diagnosis given to him by a physician and Henderson has been told by a physician that marijuana could help with his chronic condition. This should be enough for the NFL to make an exception for Henderson and other players with similar conditions.

We should also consider why marijuana is banned by the NFL at all. Although marijuana is legal for medical purposes at the state level in 28 U.S. states, it is a schedule I drug, thus illegal at the federal level. So perhaps the NFL wants to project a particular image to the public and marijuana, a federally illicit substance is not a part of that image. I am not inclined to be sympathetic to this argument because the NFL has a huge image problem when it comes to showing its concern for women sexually, mentally, and physically abused by its players. The image that the NFL should show more concern for is its image that it is a league that cares more about their players’ touchdowns than the abuse of women committed by its players, evidenced by the lack of professional penalties when players are convicted of crimes of abuse against women.

I’m also not sympathetic to the image argument because we have to consider what image the league is portraying to the public by not making an exception for players like Henderson. The NFL is showing that it cares more about an outdated policy and a willful ignorance of emerging medical research than their players’ wellbeing. Perhaps this is a situation of too many bad apples spoiling the batch for the good ones. Perhaps the NFL has handled too many cases of recreational marijuana use that it is unwilling to make an exception for medical uses. Even if this is the case, concern for actual players who have chronic diseases should be prioritized over the potential abuses of the TUE policy.

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