Asking the Right Question about Football

By David Orentlicher
[Cross-posted at HealthLawProf Blog and orentlicher.tumblr.com.]

In his New York Times op-ed today, former Denver tight end Nate Jackson explains why the NFL should prefer that its players use marijuana to medicate their pain rather than to rely on prescription drugs that can have serious side effects and promote dangerous addictions. Jackson explains quite effectively why he needed marijuana during his six-year career:

I broke my tibia, dislocated my shoulder, separated both shoulders, tore my groin off the bone once and my hamstring off the bone twice, broke fingers and ribs, tore my medial collateral ligament, suffered brain trauma, etc. Most players have similar medical charts. And every one of them needs the medicine.

But to ask whether players should use marijuana or legal drugs to treat their pain is to ask the wrong question. As I write in a forthcoming symposium on concussion in sports in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics,

It is one thing to assume risks to health when there are meaningful benefits to be gained. But there are many ways to exercise, develop teamwork skills, or gain the other benefits of competitive athletics without playing football or other sports that lead to concussion. Ultimately, the social value of violent sports seems to rest heavily on the entertainment they offer to spectators.

Rather than asking how to treat the inevitably serious injuries that players suffer, we need to ask whether there is any legitimate role for the levels of physical violence that we tolerate in football.

[Ed. Note: This post reflects the author’s views only.  It does not necessarily represent the views of the Petrie-Flom Center or the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.]