Calvin Johnson discusses NFL players' dependency on opioids

Ben Weinrib
Yahoo Sports Contributor

As the United States approaches an election year in 2020, the opioid crisis is among the biggest issues facing the nation.

Over 200,000 people have died from opioid overdoses since 1999, including 31,473 in 2018 alone, according to the CDC. Opioid addiction affects an estimated 1.7 million people, with overprescription being among the bigger reasons for its proliferation.

Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has been open about how he smoked marijuana to deal with years of injuries in the NFL, but in a wide-ranging interview with Sports Illustrated, he discussed how widespread painkiller use has been in the NFL.

“When I got to the league, [there] was opioid abuse,” Johnson said. “You really could go in the training room and get what you wanted. I can get Vicodin, I can get Oxy[contin]. It was too available. I used Percocet and stuff like that. And I did not like the way that made me feel. I had my preferred choice of medicine. Cannabis.”

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The NFL is known for its over-the-top toughness, and players can feel pressure to return early from injuries to keep their jobs — and non-guaranteed contracts. Johnson only missed nine games over his nine-year career despite facing brutal injuries.

He dealt with injuries to both knees, his foot, an ankle, and a broken finger that left his hand permanently disfigured. Even after losing consciousness during a concussion, he said the team pressured him to play through the injury and lie about it.

“It’s not about the welfare of the players,” Johnson said. “[It’s] just about having that product.”

Former Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson discussed his early retirement and NFL players' drug dependancies. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Johnson focusing on medical marijuana research

The reality of how teams deal with injuries as modern medicine finds more ways to quickly deal with pain is important to discuss.

Johnson has made this a focus of his post-retirement life by going into the medical marijuana business with former teammate Rob Sims. The two are hoping to help by working with Harvard to research the subject.

“We can be in position to develop a treatment for CTE,” Sims told ESPN in August. “There's been suggestion that CBD and stuff can help cognitive disease, and we think that potentially there could be a treatment going forward that we can produce.”

While marijuana is still listed as a Schedule I drug by the US government, it has far less addictive properties without the risk of overdose death. Opioids have already led to the death of one college football player, and the NFL must avoid letting a painkiller problem grow into anything bigger.

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