Published at 1:56 PM EST on Feb 5, 2016
With much of the NFL world camped out in the San Francisco Bay Area in the days before Super Bowl 50, researchers released sobering news: late Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.
Later Wednesday, another late, great QB, Earl Morrall, also was revealed to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is associated with memory loss, impaired judgment and progressive dementia. Dozens of former players have been diagnosed, some who died in old age, like Frank Gifford, and a few who took their lives, like Junior Seau.
There is no known treatment for CTE, not least because there's no test that can point it out in the living — it's detected in post-mortem brain scans. But to one former player who's sure his nine-year career gave him the disease, there's an obvious treatment that isn't allowed in the NFL, even though it would be easy to score not far from Levi's Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday for anyone with a doctor's note: medical marijuana.
"If cannabis is implemented and (the NFL) can lead the science on this, they can resolve this brain injury situation in a big way," Kyle Turley said.
Turley is at the forefront of a vocal movement arguing that medical marijuana's pain-suppressing and possible neuroprotective benefits make it the only effective treatment for the effects that chronic concussive blows to the head have on football players. As co-founder of the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, Turley is the movement's most outspoken member, but it also includes other retired players and rapper/marijuana entrepreneur Snoop Dogg.
More players' brains are found to show signs of CTE with each year that passes. Researchers at Boston University have found evidence of CTE in 96 percent of the NFL players' brains they examined. At the same time, more states are allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana as a medicine – 23 so far, according to National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
California was the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana, and remains the only medical marijuana-legal state so far to host the Super Bowl. Nearly half of the medical marijuana identification cards issued in California were prescribed in the Bay Area, according to the Department of Public Health.
A small body of research suggests marijuana can heal head trauma, yet Turley wonders why the league isn't investigating the drug as a medicine. To advocates, hosting the Super Bowl in the region is almost hypocritical, given what they see happening to the heads of NFL players and the spiraling lives of some former players.
"The NFL's policy against medical marijuana is stupid and counterproductive," said Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of NORML, in an email calling the NFL out of touch with the laws of the state. "There's no doubt NFL players would be better off with medical access to marijuana."
The NFL did not comment for this story.