The NFL would rather that Mike James consume powerful opioids to manage his chronic pain, risking addiction, overdose and even death, than use the drug that actually works the best for him . . . Marijuana.
That was the message from the league last month when it rejected his application for a therapeutic-use exemption for the drug this season. The free-agent running back had hoped the exemption, called a TUE, would allow him to treat his pain without fear of violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Instead, the answer was just the latest short-sighted decision from a league that hasn’t found a way to protect its players from the lifetime of suffering that follows a career in the sport. The NFL apparently is blind to the opioid crisis that has taken hold in this country.
More than 64,000 people died from opioid-related causes in 2016 — numbers that continue to rise in an alarming fashion — but the top professional league still refuses to embrace a safer alternative to help players like James deal with the ravages to their bodies.
“I am hopeful that I’ll be able to keep playing football,” James said in a phone conversation this week. “It is a game that I love very dearly. I know right now I’m doing something that makes some people uncomfortable, and that I’m going against the establishment to push for a change in the way they look at this medicine. I know there’s a greater purpose here for a lot of guys in this league who I consider family members.”
James will be one of the keynote speakers at the New Jersey Cannabis Symposium at the Princeton Hyatt on Wednesday, his first public appearance since telling his story in a CNN documentary last month.
His problems with pain started in 2013. James, a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, broke his ankle driving toward the goal line in a Monday Night Football game.
He saw nothing wrong with popping the pills for “pain like I had never experienced in my life.” They were prescribed by doctors, and after all, NFL players are constantly taking something for the myriad of physical problems that are associated with the country’s most violent sport.
He quickly developed a dependence to the drugs that became a growing problem for his growing family. His wife, Aubrey, encourage him to try medical marijuana as an alternative, but James — whose father had a history of drug-related offenses — balked at the idea.
“I didn’t want to believe the benefits,” he said. “But at that point, I was in so much pain and going through a lot mentally with the demands in the game, I tried it. It gave me instant relief.”
Marijuana is a banned substance in the NFL, although testing only occurs during offseason activities or training camp. Still: James didn’t want to simply ignore the rules. He wanted the league to acknowledge that marijuana was a safer alternative to opioids.
He wanted to remove the stigma from the drug at a time when numerous states, including New Jersey, have pushed to decriminalize or legalize cannabis both medicinally and recreationally.
“Consuming a vast amount of opioids is far more dangerous than cannabis,” said Dr. Sue Sisley MD, the principal investigator at the Scottsdale Research Institute and James’ physician. “One is lethal in overdose. One is not. One has an epidemic in overdose deaths. One has no deaths associated with it.”
The NFL has allocated $100 million to research player wellness, Sisley said, but “not one dime of that has been earmarked for cannabis research.” She called James the perfect candidate to challenge the league’s rules because opioids are not a treatment option.
They haven’t accepted the league’s ruling. His attorney, Brian Muraresku, wouldn’t specifically discuss what options they are pursuing but said he and James had met with NFL officials and that talks are ongoing.
“Mike’s desire is to get back onto a team and continue his career,” Muraresku said. “If this decision stands as is, it is a career-ending decision for Mike. I’m very optimistic that these conversations are going to result in some kind of solution.”
It is quite possible that any decision won’t benefit James directly. He was on the fringes of the sport before taking on this fight, and look no further than Colin Kaepernick to see how the league responds to players who challenge the establishment.
James is hopeful that he’ll not only play again, but that he’ll be remembered as a pioneer. He believes he is on the right side of history, and that somebody needed to speak up for players who don’t want to spend their lives popping one pill after another.
“I hear it all the time from retired players who say, ‘I was so scared to say something when I was playing,'” James said. “We are the engine that drives this league. If we can’t get onto the field with a less harmful medicine and we can’t live our life after football, how are we going to tell our kids to play this game?”