Taking Back Sunday: Redefining NFL's Views on Weed

Kyle Turley, by then playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, speaks during a news conference at Mike Ditka’s restaurant in Chicago on November 27, 2007, where he presented a check, the equivalent of what he says he earns per game, to an effort to raise money for needy retired players. According to Turley, not enough of his fellow ex-NFLers are being exposed to enough options to treat their myriad physical ailments—and cannabis is part of the solution. M. SPENCER GREEN/AP IMAGES

This article, written by Senior Editor Tim Baker, was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition, Weed U.S.A.

When Kyle Turley was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft, he was set along a path that is familiar to too many athletes. After sustaining a leg injury while playing for the San Diego State Aztecs in college, he had begun a regimen of painkillers, anti-inflammatories and other pharmaceuticals that would eventually find him adrift in a post-football existence defined by his relationship to the pills he was constantly advised to take. After quitting these drugs in favor of cannabis, Turley is now a new man, dedicated to helping other athletes witnessing the same darkness.

What are the defining traits of the NFL's cannabis culture?

It's the same culture that we see in the concussion discussion, as well. [The League] stands on grounds of ignorance, relying upon science to give them the answers they need. But the only science they continue to adhere to is science that they seem to have a vested interest in controlling. They control their relationships with media and the government in ways that allow them to operate in suspect manners as far as giving information and being held accountable for giving false information.

What do you feel the League can do to change that?

Much like the concussion situation, the cannabis discussion is just another can they're kicking down the road. To put it one way, while guys are committing suicide and becoming addicted to pharmaceuticals they don't need—much of this revolves around the NFL's stance of ignorance. They continue to be a follower instead of becoming a leader when they know they have some very important problems to solve. You have this happening across the country because of sports. Period. Sports are fun and there are a lot of great things that can be had from participating in sports in general, but along with any sport comes athletic injury, which is often very serious. Athletes often require surgery and medication to deal with the pain. And right now they are only being given one choice of medicine. These medicines can often be miraculous for the things they can do, but in the long term they are highly addictive. The truth about cannabis is there for the world to see. Our position should be informed about this, to give cannabis as an option.

When did you first realize it was an option?

My second year in the NFL cannabis was introduced to me by another player—a Hall of Fame player—and it gave me some of the same relief I can still feel today. Dealing with the pharmaceuticals that had been piling up since I blew out my knee in college and I had to have my first surgery, I began to realize that all these pills just didn't make me feel good. They did a marginal job of dulling pain and inflammation issues, but also did a lot of things to me adversely that I didn't like. I was going through the rigor of the NFL, being a rookie and second-year player, having a lot of stress to deal with and losing a lot of sleep over the demand of being a professional football player. Unfortunately I was in New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and then I retired in Nashville, so I could only get [the cannabis] I could get from my guy. That didn't allow me to fully understand the plant, about different strains and their different medicinal effects that I could take advantage of.

After football, how did you finally incorporate cannabis full-time?

It wasn't difficult to make the transition from pharmaceuticals. The sleep aids they were giving me weren't working, my anxiety was off the charts and I was having really strange emotional and rage issues that had started to trickle into my personal life and cause some major problems. Since the first opportunity I had to use cannabis and see what it could do for me, I have never looked back. Now you can call that an addiction if you want, or you can call it finally finding a medicine that worked. I was finally able to sleep, eat, take myself away from the violence of football and everything that goes along with it. I was able to put all those things on the shelf when I used cannabis.

What differences have you noticed in the long term?

Since what I call my sobriety from pharmaceuticals, I've gotten my life back, I've gotten my family back—my wife and I don't fight. I can drive on the freeway again. I can go to the movies, which I couldn't do for six years because of severe light sensitivity issues. I can be up in a building without vertigo issues that used to be constant. Everything from suicidal tendencies to the myriad prior pain issues I had from my surgeries and the fact that I'm pretty much bone on bone in every single joint, cannabis helps. I've experienced a 180-degree, night-and-day shift in my ability to deal with these issues. I don't take any pills anymore, not even an aspirin. And I've found certain strains of cannabis that can address each of these conditions as needed. This is not addiction.

Why has cannabis become such an important issue for you?

Brain injury has proven to be the athlete's worst enemy, and we are allowing something that could possibly help it—if not resolve the issue itself if we let it be researched enough—be ignored. We are doing nothing in terms of brain injury after thousands of years of proof that cannabis has never killed a soul. The last time I checked we were the United States of America and we were supposed to be leading the world in things. I think we should be highly alarmed— pun intended. I separated myself from all these pills, which wasn't easy, and I found cannabis, which is a story that needs to be told. All of my friends are dying and getting horrific diseases, and it's not ending. We still have grown men killing themselves and doing very irrational things they shouldn't be doing. We've completely missed the boat in dealing with our brain injuries, and the NFL won't acknowledge that. We're ignoring an even bigger problem, which is that we are giving players medicines that people with brain injuries should never be given before they have the opportunity to try this plant. Study after study after study shows that this must be recognized as a viable option—not just for football players but for everybody.

This was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition, Weed U.S.A., by Issue Editor Tim Baker. For more on Marijuana in America, pick up your copy today.

Tim Baker