By Amy Tennery

MIAMI (Reuters) – In the bone-crunching, muscle-wrenching sport of football, staying on the field when injured is a challenging priority for NFL players.

And with another major U.S. sports league opening the door to allow players to use marijuana and associated compounds like CBD, a debate is heating up about the way football players manage pain.

Last month, Major League Baseball (MLB) removed natural cannabinoids such as THC, CBD and marijuana from its Drugs of Abuse list. The decision, prompted by concern about growing addiction to opoid piankillers, was widely acclaimed.

Former football players told Reuters a similar policy would be a positive step for management of chronic pain in the NFL.

“The landscape around all professional sports is sort of leaning that way,” said Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Denver Broncos. “Now how fast the NFL gets there, I’m not sure.”

In May, Davis co-founded a new sports drink infused with CBD known as DEFY, after becoming convinced of the cannabis-derived compound’s benefits.

The NFL has firm rules regarding banned substances, with players regularly receiving suspensions for marijuana and alcohol violations.

Davis, who retired during the 2002 preseason, said adopting a policy similar to MLB’s would improve players’ quality of life.

“The bottom line is just to give players choices,” said Davis. “To be able to say, ‘hey, you’re not forced to take just one kind of anti-inflammatory.'”

CBD, also known as cannabidiol, is a THC-free cannabis compound that has found a big market in recent years for products including body lotions, ingestible liquids and capsules. Advocates tout health benefits from anxiety reduction to pain management.

Several other former NFL players have gotten into the CBD business after their careers ended, including three-time Super Bowl champion Rob Gronkowski, who partnered with topical medication firm Abacus Health in 2019.

“It’s not going to do miracle work and heal your injuries like that but I believe it will help give you a relief,” said Gronkowski, who advocates the inclusion of CBD in all professional sports. “Especially in the football, you’re always getting muscle tissue damage from all the hits.”

One of the highest-performing tight ends in the history of the sport, the 30-year-old former New England Patriot struggled through numerous injuries and underwent surgeries for his ankle, forearm, back and ACL/MCL during his career.

“With the MLB lifting its ban, it’s just a fantastic start, and it would be wonderful to see like NFL and other major sports organizations to start following the lead of the MLB and lifting up that ban,” Gronkowski said.

This month, the Pain Management Committee of the NFL and the players’ union held a forum to examine the potential for CBD to become a permitted substance.

Dr. Michael Oshinsky, a program director who oversees pains and migraine research at the National Institutes of Health, told Reuters evidence remains thin to back up many benefits claimed by CBD advocates.

“When it comes to pain, because of that subjective nature of it, the patient has a lot of control over what they perceive,” said Oshinsky.

“Maybe a bit for inflammation, there’s some evidence,” he added, but “there’s enough for us to know it’s not some miracle cure for pain.”

On the topic of marijuana and CBD, the league told reporters last week that “everything is under consideration” in regard to different forms of therapy to help in treat pain.

“If we are going to recommend or approve any kind of therapy for NFL players, again, whether it’s equipment or treatment or intervention, we’d have to pass an extremely high standard of proof,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.

Some battle-worn veterans of the NFL say having the option to use CBD products should be in the hands of the players.

“(I) literally limped away from the game when I was done,” said three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lofa Tatupu, whose six-season career with the Seattle Seahawks was “decimated” by injuries.

After retiring in 2013, Tatupu began researching and eventually using CBD. He co-founded the Washington-based ZoneIn CBD in 2019.

“The wear and tear is still there,” said Tatupu, who underwent 10 surgeries during his NFL career. “It didn’t mask the pain, it helped me deal with it directly and work through it.”

“I hope (the NFL and NFLPA) listen to us, in terms of how much it’s fixed or repaired the trauma that we’ve experienced from our career,” said Tatupu. “I know I did willingly sign up for that, because I saw my dad go through it.

“So now I know why he always said, ‘you’re going to play baseball, not football.’”

(Reporting By Amy Tennery; Editing by David Gregorio)