The Right Hook: Major Sports Leagues Begin to Reevaluate Cannabis as Medicine

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For many fight fans, the anticipation as we wait for UFC 241 on August 17th is almost too much to handle as it marks the long awaited return of one of the sport’s most exciting athletes and most explosive personalities – Nate Diaz.

The Stockton-bred bruiser, you may recall, had his most recent octagon appearance in a highly rated rematch versus Conor McGregor, but that was nearly three years ago at UFC 202 in August of 2016. You may also recall that after an absolutely brutal display of martial arts by both fighters, the bout ended after five rounds in a judges’ decision victory for McGregor, leveling the all-time record between the two at one W each.

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After that fight, a beaten but still not defeated Nate Diaz answered questions from the press live in front of a mic, his face almost unrecognizable but his spirit and swagger as authentic as ever. Throughout the presser, Diaz was taking hits from a vape pen, making no effort to conceal his actions. A curious reporter asked him what was in the pen and in fuck-free Diaz fashion he told the world that he was vaping CBD. Between, puffs, he said that he commonly vaporized it before and after fights to help with inflammation and general healing.

This may all seem pretty standard to most of us now, but after his post-fight CBD endorsement in 2016, Diaz stared down the UFC for three years playing a vital role in the advancement of cannabinoid-based sports medicine which appears to be coming full circle to the UFC on a very similar timeline as his actual fighting career.

Beginning in July of 2015, the UFC delegated all drug testing of its athletes to a third party outfit called USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency). USADA oversees not only the UFC, but American Olympic athletes as well, and their testing protocols essentially fall in line with WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Though primarily aimed at stopping the all too common use of performance enhancing drugs in the UFC, it was not until last year in 2018 that WADA officially announced that it would be removing CBD products from its list of banned substances. The rest of the cannabis plant remains prohibited for UFC fighters while “in-competition”.

Diaz looks to bounce back from the 2016 loss on August 17th of this year, not versus Conor McGregor, but instead against the highly talented and unpredictable Anthony “Showtime” Pettis.

Around that same date, the ink will be totally dry and research underway as the result of a multi-year and multi-billion dollar deal announced earlier this week between Canadian cannabis magnate Aurora Cannabis, Inc. and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The companies announced that research on both cannabis and hemp derived CBD will take place at the UFC’s state-of-the-art Performance Institute in an effort to determine what benefit the non-intoxicating cannabinoid may have for treating pain and inflammation, how it may aid injury and work-out recovery, and what affect it may have on mental well-being. The scope of the move is unprecedented in any of the major sports, of which the UFC has quickly risen to become.

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“This global partnership places focus squarely on the health and well-being of UFC’s talented and highly trained athletes,” said Aurora Chief Executive Terry Booth. “The Aurora-UFC research partnership creates a global platform to launch targeted educational and awareness campaigns, while creating numerous opportunities to accelerate our global CBD business.”

Every UFC fighter has Nate Diaz to thank, at least in part, for their right to a natural, plant-based recovery. Not every fight happens inside the octagon, especially for Nate! The Beard Bros. salute the Diaz Bros. for their collective kick in the gut to cannabis detractors in the world of mixed martial arts, and, it appears, beyond.

WELCOME TO THE CBD WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS

Taking the handoff from the UFC, the National Football League (NFL) and the League’s player’s union (NFLPA) announced this week that they too would be forming a . . . *cough, cough* joint committee with a bicameral duty to not only review and revise the League’s prescription drug policies, but to also overhaul the way that the League deals with the mental health and wellness of its employees.

Posted by    Kyle Turley    - Note the date, this work doesn’t happen overnight…

Posted by Kyle Turley - Note the date, this work doesn’t happen overnight…

The official announcement implies that as a part of its pain management research, the League will dedicate resources to the study of the cannabis plant as a potential pain management tool. Clearly, we know that it can serve that purpose, but they need to expand that research into the mental health half of their new committee as CBD has shown great promise in the treatment of concussions and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in collision-prone athletes – like football players, or UFC fighters.

So, no, it doesn’t have quite the reach of the jab thrown by the UFC, but the NFL has far more mainstream and political influence and the mere mention of marijuana in a positive light by the League is certainly as monumental as it is overdue. The League has shown a disappointing willingness in the not-so-distant past to harshly punish cannabis users, but times are changing faster than a 40-yard dash. Former NFL star Kyle Turley is a friend of ours and a loud and proud advocate for the power of cannabis as a healing tool. His voice, along with other League vets like Eben Britton, Terrell Davis, and now so many others, have steadily chipped away at the NFL’s crumbling prohibition of the plant.

The National Hockey League (NHL) is also actively engaged in the study of CBD, and they are specifically looking at how it can help to treat TBI using a sample pool of 100 retired pro hockey players. The League is aware of the real potential benefits to be discovered by studying THC as well as/in conjunction with CBD, though federal prohibition in the U.S. has prevented them from such research so far. Additionally, the NHL respects state laws in the U.S., and the national law in Canada, in regard to cannabis - meaning that players residing in legal states or up north have the right to blaze it up.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) both keep cannabis in all of its forms on their banned substances lists. Neither league cracks down on cannabis use very often, but the overarching prohibition – as toothless as it may be – has prevented the proliferation of promoting CBD use by any active big names in these popular sports. We are seeing some retired hoopsters becoming outspoken activists and we welcome their unique perspective (no, seriously. . . these dudes are TALL!)

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Speaking of CBD promotion, this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500 will feature for the first time nationally televised race cars branded by CBD companies with names like Craft 1861 and Defy. Other drivers laughing uncontrollably at those corny names could be dangerous at 200 mph+ but, hey, we don’t have the cash to wrap an Indycar so more power to them.

WHAT ARE SPORTS WITHOUT SOME STATS?

Of the 123 professional sports teams across the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB, 45 of them (or 36.6% of them) are based in states or provinces where recreational cannabis is legal for consumption by adults aged 21 and up. On top of that, 56 of them (or 45.5% of them) have home court/field/ice advantage in states or provinces where medical use of cannabis is legal. Don’t worry, we did the math – that’s 102 out of 123 teams, or a heavily lopsided 82% of sports teams from those four leagues.

There are only six states remaining that have a pro team but do not have progressive cannabis reform in place – Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. That sure adds a new twist to draft day.

Any league, commission, or other governing body in the world of sports that demands that its employees push their physical capabilities to the breaking point and beyond but then deny them the same fundamental civil rights surrounding cannabis use afforded to dog walkers and donut makers (no offense, dog walkers and donut makers) is immoral at best and is absolutely on the wrong side of history. Progress is progress, however, and we’ll take it anywhere we can get it especially considering how hard our friends and colleagues are fighting for every inch of it.

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