Cannabis use by athletes for mental and physical relief is on the rise. As knowledge, acceptance and availability of cannabis increase, athletes are poised to make big waves within the industry as entrepreneurs, investors and advocates. Former NFL defensive end Marvin Washington is taking this route and stands as a prime example of what is now possible for players after hanging up their cleats.
Washington was drafted by the Jets in 1989, going on to play a total of eight seasons in New York. He then spent two years with the San Francisco 49ers and one in Denver with the Broncos (where he snagged a 1998-99 Super Bowl ring during quarterback John Elway’s final season).
The eleven years of professional football were just the beginning of Washington’s career. His first pivot was taking a financial advisor role at William Small Wealth Management. The former Jet worked with high-net-worth individual investors and athletes, with a focus on financial planning, retirement planning and estate planning.
His involvement in the cannabis industry began after meeting executives from Kannalife, a biopharmaceutical company driving innovation in research, development and discovery of cannabis therapies. The company’s mission to develop drugs for concussion prevention and other head injury-related issues inspired a series of his business ventures.
One of at least four cannabis firms in which Washington has interests is Isodiol, an international hemp-based consumer products company where he is Vice President, Business Development Director and a member of its Board of Directors. Through Isodiol, he co-founded ISO-Sport, a line of sports performance products that are infused with cannabidiol (CBD) and used to battle muscle soreness and inflammation.
Washington is a firm believer in the medicinal benefits of cannabis and has become a major advocate for its use and legal expansion. He regularly speaks about the usage of cannabinoids as neuroprotectants and as an alternative to prescription opioid abuse and addiction. He also emphasizes the importance of social justice issues when paving the way for legalization.
In his role as a board member of Athletes for Care, Washington supports athletes in a range of health and safety issues, such increasing the education on benefits that alternative treatments can have for prevention of and recovery for sports-related injuries.
Another avenue through which he has made a major impact is the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). Here, Washington leads a growing undertaking to push for the league and its union to welcome cannabis as a solution for traumatic brain injuries and painkiller addiction.
He has also lobbied the NFLPA to include proposals to eliminate marijuana screening and suspension for its use. Professional athletes must deal with contradictions in policy between state-approved programs and their league’s drug policies. Axios has reported that 101 out of 123 major North American professional sports teams play where cannabis is legal in some capacity, yet the NFL, NBA and MLB all hand out punishments for positive drug tests.
Alongside other former players such as Jake Plummer, Eugene Monroe, Leonard Marshall and Jim McMahon, he urges the league to fund cannabis research as it relates to brain injuries, especially chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 87 out of 91 deceased NFL players tested positive for CTE in a recent Boston University study. Washington acted as a prominent voice for former players in the NFL’s concussion lawsuit and speaks regularly about ways to combat CTE. CBD has shown scientific potential to be a neuroprotectant, and there is excitement about the prospect of the cannabinoid’s use as a “helmet for the brain.”
Washington wasn’t always this passionate about cannabis. He was born in Denver and moved to Dallas at the age of twelve. During his time in high school (where he played varsity basketball), Washington would smoke joints with friends but never enjoyed it much, as it would make him anxious and withdrawn.
He attended the University of Texas-El Paso on a basketball scholarship but failed to perform up to par on the court and in the classroom. His next stop at Hinds Community College in Mississippi was successful, improving his grades and joining the football team as a tight end. The path would lead him to play both hoops and football for the University of Idaho and eventually get drafted by the Jets despite his limited football experience.
During his time in the NFL, Washington saw first hand the crushing impact that opioid addiction had on players and their families. He was also shook by research that showed even mild brain injuries could lead to CTE, dementia, depression and other mental health issues. When he was in the league, many of his teammates (he believes about 30 to 40 percent) would use marijuana, but he didn’t partake himself. Since retirement, research and personal use has persuaded him that cannabis could be an important solution for prevention and treatment for football-related brain injuries.
Marvin Washington continues to fight for sensible cannabis policy. In 2017, he was a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seeking to overturn the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug.
And progress is being made in the NFL. The league and NFLPA formed joint medical committees in May 2019 to research alternative therapies for pain and mental health management, including cannabis and CBD, although they remain on the NFL’s banned substances list. The issue will likely be a point of contention during the next NFL/NFLPA collective bargaining discussions in 2021. Outlook is that the league could adopt a policy similar to the NHL’s cannabis substance abuse policy, where players are not penalized when testing positive for THC.
Take the time to read Marvin Washington’s well-written 2015 piece on his career and future hopes called “The Ghosts of the NFL” for The Players’ Tribune.