Against The Gridiron: The Hard Hits And High Priorities Of Eugene Monroe
From professional sports to a public health crisis, the retired NFL player urges the league to use its platform for social change
Prior to a football game, athletes suit up in a wide assortment of protective gear. In a sport known for its violent tendencies, these brave participants adorn their bodies with a selection of the following before they take the field:
While all of the above serve to soften the blows athletes face during competition, one protective measure continues to escape the list—cannabis. With its presence as a banned substance overshadowing its capacity as a neuro-protector and pain-reliever, athletes and advocates alike have been stepping up and out of the game in the name of better policies surrounding pot. Among the leaders of this movement is recently-retired NFL player Eugene Monroe, who didn’t shy away from speaking his mind with DOPE Magazine on the hard-hitting topic:
Issues in the NFL with concussions and head injuries are certainly very widely known now and it’s a sore point for me having had multiple concussions while I was a player, but also the treatment protocol after you have a concussion. I played an entire game essentially while concussed and didn’t even realize until the next morning when I went outside, the sun hit my face, and I immediately vomited and passed out—some of the symptoms that coincide with having a concussion.
Following a multitude of head injuries and frustrations with NFL policies, Monroe retired from professional football in July 2016—bringing his eight-year career as an offensive lineman to a rather abrupt end. Since leaving the league, his progressive point of view has been illuminating the wellness-based benefits of cannabis use, as well as helping to chip away at the fried-egg ‘this is your brain on drugs’ scare tactics that have dominated conversations and policies for decades. But as concussions continue to make headlines, we find the health issues running far deeper than hits to the head. Monroe commented on the NFL’s capacity to make a difference regarding a number of brain-related issues:
Creating the awareness portion of it is very important and tying it with diseases with such widespread awareness like Alzheimer’s. It melds perfectly with football because of the league’s titled ‘industrial disease’—CTE—and some of the effects of that are the early onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s all married together, and for many reasons I believe the NFL should be at the forefront of research for cannabis and potentially protecting and regenerating brain cells. Not only for the widespread impact it could have, but particularly because the game itself is causing these problems for athletes.
Beyond the physicality of the cannabis-concussion debate, racial stereotypes surrounding both the plant and professional athletes prove formidable. Here, Monroe recognizes a familiar social stigma lurking in the shadows of the conversation: the disproportionate effect on African American populations.
Another issue that I’m not sure many former players have talked about that I certainly believe is one, is recognizing that you create a public health crisis when you incarcerate disproportionally at a very high level with African Americans and other minorities. Particularly looking at our major sports leagues, you have the NFL and NBA that are comprised of a majority of African Americans, and they’re the only two sports leagues that actually punish players for using marijuana. The communities that these athletes come from are the same communities being affected by prohibition.
While the push for change continues, it is important to note that there is a significant racial divide between the players and the decision-makers that comprise the NFL. As approximately two-thirds of NFL players are African American, there are zero NFL franchise owners and just five head coaches. When it comes to being suspended for a banned substance, approximately 90 percent of those popped are African American. And when it comes to getting busted the good old fashioned way, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, African Americans are almost four times as likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related violation.
In 2014, researchers at UCLA examined the toxicology reports of individuals who had been admitted to the emergency room for a brain injury. Individuals with reports testing positive for cannabis were associated with decreased mortality rates from traumatic brain injury.