Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson of the National Basketball Association recently acknowledged they’ve used marijuana in the past in an effort to manage pain.
The discussion over cannabis use by professional athletes was reignited recently, after second-year Golden State Warriors coach acknowledged to using marijuana to help deal with back pain. On a recent episode of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s Warrior Insider Podcast, 51-year old Kerr told host Monte Poole that he considered traditional pain-killing substances to be dangerous and instead consumed marijuana twice over the past 18 months while suffering from debilitating pain following a pair of back surgeries.
The reigning National Basketball Association Coach of the Year went on to say he believes that players in the league should be able to use marijuana for pain relief. Marijuana is currently on the NBA’s banned substances list.
“I think the league should look into medicinal marijuana for pain relief … that’s what should be in the [collective bargaining agreement],” Kerr told Poole.
Kerr’s acknowledgement of past marijuana use stirred up a bit of uproar. Despite that 54 percent of American adults believe marijuana should be legalized, the substance continues to maintain a stigma as a drug used by people who are lazy or unmotivated. Although it wasn’t Kerr’s initial intention, he hopes his comments will help open up a larger conversation about athletes and cannabis.
“I was a little surprised at how it became kind of a big deal,” Kerr said in a press conference a day after revealing he had tried marijuana. “The conversation was about pain relief in professional sports. The context of our conversation was about how professional sports should handle pain relief for players.”
Players are given traditional medications like opioids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to manage pain during the season. While the chemical painkillers and opioids are effective for reducing pain, they carry a high risk of side effects, as well as addiction, abuse and overdose.
“I’m always struck every time I’m home on the couch watching a sporting event, some drug commercial comes on, they show these happy people jumping in a lake, rowing a boat, then you just wait for the qualifier,” Kerr said. “Side effects include suicidal thoughts and possible death. And you’re like, this is insane. Insane.”
Warrior player Draymond Green responded to his coach’s comments with empathy. Although noting that he doesn’t use marijuana and hasn’t needed traditional painkillers, Green says he understands where Kerr was coming from in his decision.
“You look at something that comes from the Earth. Any vegetable that comes from the Earth, they encourage you to eat it,” Green said at shoot around. “It does make a little sense as opposed to giving someone a manufactured pill. If something takes your pain away like some of these pills do, it can’t be all good for you. … He talked about Vicodin. Toradal, you can be completely hurting and then take a Toradal shot and go through a game and feel nothing. Is that really good for you over the course of time? I doubt it.”
“The stuff they’re prescribing is really bad for you,” Kerr said. “I think it’s important to talk about it because I think it’s perception. I haven’t talked to many people about it, but I find it ironic that had I said I’ve used Oxycontin for relief for my back pain, it would not have been a headline.”
Former NBA coach and now president of the New York Knicks Phil Jackson also recently acknowledged to using marijuana in the past for pain relief. During an appearance on CBS Sports Network’s “We Need to Talk,” Jackson said he used marijuana when he was a player to manage back pain.
In the National Football League, players are currently putting pressure on the league to allow players to use cannabis, arguing that studies show cannabis to be a safer and more effective pain management option than chemical painkillers and opioids. Sixty percent of NFL players believe being allowed to use marijuana would reduce their intake of addictive painkillers, which they receive regularly to endure the severe pain associated with their sports. There’s also evidence that cannabinoids can help limit the brain damage due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease caused by repetitive blows to the head. KannaLife Sciences, Inc, a plant-based pharmaceutical company, is actively developing a cannabinoid treatment for CTE.
“But I understand that it’s a perception issue. The NFL, NBA – it’s a business,” Kerr said. “So you don’t want your customers thinking, ‘these guys are a bunch of potheads.’ But it’s only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana is allowed in sports leagues because the education will overwhelm the perception.”
The Drug Policy Alliance issued a statement in response to Kerr and Jackson’s comments, arguing that, “Marijuana should not be a banned substance in professional sports.”
“It’s time for all professional sports leagues to do the socially responsible thing: stop using the playbook and rhetoric from the failed drug war and create more fair marijuana policies,” added the Drug Policy Alliance.
“I’m actually kind of glad it became an issue because I think it’s a very important issue to talk about, having gone through a tough spell over the last year with my own recovery back surgery, a lot of pain, chronic pain,” Kerr said.
“[Steve Kerr] is a public figure with some notoriety making a statement,” said NBA veteran player David West, who’s had four surgeries during his playing career. “It brings more attention to a cause for something that people feel like there needs to be a shift in the way we monitor it and change things. Obviously somebody of his stature can give a little weight to the argument.”
While Kerr and Jackson have ignited a necessary conversation, as of now there’s not much indication that the NBA of NFL will be changing their drug policies soon. While the NFL has at least reached out to researchers to learn more about marijuana’s efficacy for pain management, The Ringer reported last month that there’s no expected change to the league’s marijuana policy in the NBA’s upcoming collective bargaining agreement.