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Barbershop: Attitudes On Protest, Marijuana In The NFL


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us for a shape up this week - Kevin Blackistone. He's a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and a frequent ESPN commentator. He joins us in our studios in Washington, D.C., once again. Kevin, welcome back. Happy New Year.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you. You, too.

MARTIN: Also with us is former NFL wide receiver and tight-end Nate Jackson. His acclaimed football memoir, "Slow Getting Up: A Story Of NFL Survival From The Bottom Of The Pile," was a best seller. He joins us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Nate, it's good to talk to you again as well.

NATE JACKSON: Good to talk to you. Thank you.

MARTIN: And Natalie Weiner is a staff writer for the Bleacher Report, the digital sports news outlet. She joins us from our studios in New York. Good to have you with us as well, Natalie.


MARTIN: So the NFL playoffs start today. So we decided to keep things NFL focus. And, no, we're not talking scores. We want to talk about some of the big issues in and around the sport, which is - like it or not - the biggest ratings driver on television. So, you know, in that sense, it's an important, you know, cultural institution.

And I want to start with an issue that goes beyond football that was in the news this week. And that is the Trump administration's decision to reverse Obama administration's guidance to federal prosecutors which was to shield legal marijuana from federal involvement expect - except in narrow circumstances, such as cartel activity or where it's suspected to being sold to minors. And so we're going to have more on that in this program later. But I'm bringing this up because the issue of marijuana has been a big one in pro sports, including the NFL.

So Kevin Blackistone, I'll start with you. What's the state of play on this?

BLACKISTONE: Well, this year, the NFL and the NFL players' union, the NFLPA, actually started talking about the use of marijuana as an option to opioids for pain treatment with NFL players. And if there's anything that is more amazing in sports, I don't know of it - than watching NFL players put their bodies back together week after week during a season. It is like walking - it is like watching the walking wounded. And so this is a real issue.

And, in fact, one player earlier last year - during the summer, a former New York Jets player sued Attorney General Sessions over the possibility that he would actually start to move in this direction. So it's a big deal because there are a number of players who have all but testified to the success that marijuana has had for them in dealing with pain.

MARTIN: Is it - but it's still banned in most professional sports leagues...

BLACKISTONE: It is banned. It is...

MARTIN: ...Whether the state in which the sports franchise is located allows it or not.

BLACKISTONE: Right. It's absolutely banned. It is something that the NFL, for a long time, said that it would have nothing to do with. But it has changed its tune. It changed its tune in 2017. So, you know, I look at this in another way, too, because I look at this as an attack on black male athletes because...


BLACKISTONE: Well, because they make up almost two-thirds or - two-thirds or more of the NFL. They play the positions that suffer the most in terms of collisions and getting injured because they play the skill positions, and they play the positions on defense that have to make so many solo tackles. And so this is, to me, an attack on their livelihood. And I think it's a real concern for the NFL and the NFLPA.

MARTIN: Nate, you've lived this. I mean, you've written about it, and you've lived this. And you've become an advocate for medicinal marijuana, in part, for pain management. I just wanted to talk and ask, you know, what are the attitudes about this in the league among the players? And do you see - and I'm wondering whether you think that the Trump administration's stance on this is going to affect the dialogue about this?

JACKSON: I think the Trump administration stance will effect the league's view of this. But the individual teams and the players themselves - they're going to use what they need to stay on the field. Like Kevin said, they're putting Humpty Dumpty back together again every week. They know what works for their body. And so the league and the union are, supposedly, going to talk about this. And that's good. They're listening to the players for once.

But I do want to push back on Kevin's assertion that the skill-position players get hurt more than the linemen. The linemen are where the CTE findings are centered - 111 out of 112 brains cut open had CTE. The majority of those players are offensive and defensive linemen. That is the epicenter of the carnage on the field. And these guys need access to the medicine that works for them.

We're all kind of waking up to this opioid scourge. NFL players themselves are four times more likely to develop opioid addiction after playing. And so I think this is the league just kind of listening. But as far - as long as it's a federally illegal drug, the league itself, I don't think, will change the policy. But there is a distinction between recreational use and medicinal use. And my belief is that football players are using it medicinally.

MARTIN: I'm going to talk a little bit more about injuries in a minute, Nate. So talk - so hold that thought a minute.


MARTIN: I want to bring Natalie into this. And just - Natalie, what's your perspective on this?

WEINER: I mean, I think it's in the NFL's best interest to bring medicinal marijuana and cannabis usage, more broadly, into the fold because, obviously, CTE is sort of central to what their - to their long-term health. If the league wants to sustain itself, it needs to look at solutions to this. And there are very - there's very preliminary research that suggests that CBDs, cannabinoids, can be used to help prevent brain injury. So if that's a real thing, you know, the NFL needs to invest in that because that means that football - you know, a serious concern in football could be addressed.

MARTIN: Let me talk a little bit more about injuries. Nate, I'm going to go back to you on this. I mean, this is something that you've written very movingly about. You get the sense that this season that the injuries somehow were worse or more brutal than they have been in previous years. Is that your sense of it? And one of the reasons this is an issue that - of course, on the human level, it's an important issue.

But there are also people who believe that that is part of the reason that ratings are going down - that there are people who just find it just too hard to watch, especially when you understand the long-term consequences of these injuries. I mean, obviously, President Trump has a different perspective on this, and we'll talk about the protests in a minute. But, Nate, what's your perspective on this? I mean, do you feel it - is it somehow getting worse?

WEINER: I'm not sure if it's getting worse or if our attention is getting more focused on it because television production ability now gives us the ability to zoom in on every single little hit and see these guys seizing up or unconscious or having the fencing response when they get hit, whereas, in the old days, you didn't have that kind of high-definition reality in front of you on the screen to see it. And I think the NFL is very aware of this. And so they're trying to manage it.

They have this tent on the sideline where an injured player - they pull him into a tent and pull this tent over him. And I don't think that does anything to help kind of, you know, establish some transparent guidelines for the NFL. It does seem as if, you know, they're trying to create the illusion that it's not as dangerous as it is. But we've been having this conversation about the dangers of pro football since - for over 100 years. And it seems like we always come back to the game. And so I do think adjustments could be made to the game to make it a little safer. But the danger and the violence is what some people enjoy about it.

MARTIN: Well, let me go then to the protest. And, Natalie, I'll go to you first on this because, as I said earlier, you know, some argue that, you know, the injuries this season - I mean, like Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Ryan Shazier, which was a particularly kind of - it was a legal hit, but he's still recovering from it - is one of the reasons that ratings really are down.

Others, like President Trump, say it's those take-a-knee protests. And there's been a lot written about this. And so, Natalie, I'm going to go to you on this first because you've written about it. I mean, first of all, what is the state of these protests? At the end of the day, would you say that they were successful or not?

WEINER: I mean, it's really different just depending on who you talk to. I personally believe they are successful. There were players still protesting through the end of the regular season. I just wrote about this - players kneeling, players raising a fist, players sitting on the bench all during the anthem - all to convey the message that police brutality and systemic injustice are unacceptable, you know? And I think the fact that they continue to reiterate that - it may seem redundant. Or it may seem like President Trump has derailed things with his comments that are kind of, you know, intentionally trying to make people misunderstand what's going on. But at the end of the day, fans are still saying these words - police brutality, systemic injustice.

And the fans I spoke to, at least, even when they're trying to deny, you know, that the players don't have a point, they're still saying it's not about racism, you know? So I think just the fact that they're keeping those conversations urgent and happening. I think it's really important.

MARTIN: Kevin, what do you think?

BLACKISTONE: Well, it depends on what metric you use. If you use a metric in terms of involvement of players, the truth of the matter is there's been a small percentage of players all year long who've actually been involved in the protests with the exception being - coming right after the Alabama stump speech that Trump gave in which he spat an expletive at the player's mothers that got them to stand up.

And then there's the negotiations that went on between a faction of the players in the league about making some sort of contributions to social justice issues or forums. And that is going to be in the neighborhood of a hundred-million dollars. And it's just a fact that we have continued to talk about this all year long. And it continues to be somewhat of an issue. So I think in the long run, I think it has helped. I think it's been good.

MARTIN: Nate, very quickly, we only have about 30 seconds left. What do you think?

JACKSON: Yeah. I think it's definitely caused some ripples in the league. I know owners don't like it. And so it'll be interesting to see of the players who did demonstrate this year, how many of them will be back on rosters next year because I know that coaches and owners will be discussing, you know, how to deal with the more politically active players among them. They want to keep all the distractions out. I know the players want to play as well, but they want their voices to be heard. So it's difficult.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all for letting your voices be heard over the course of the year and more to come. Thank you, Nate Jackson, Kevin Blackistone and Natalie Weiner. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.


WEINER: Thanks.

JACKSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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