It's the rare professional athlete who dares to emphatically stand up to his employer -- as well as the establishment that provides such massive visibility -- to state clearly and respectfully that its rules have the potential to threaten his life, and the lives of those like him.
And regardless of whether you ultimately agree with his position, the thoughtful passion he brings to his medical crusade -- namely to address the nation's runaway opioid addiction crisis by shining the light on pain management within his industry -- broadens the conversation and is certainly welcome.
That rare athlete is Eugene Monroe.
By all measures, the veteran left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens does not come off as the stereotypical, egocentric, multi-millionaire ballplayer looking for league clearance to get high. In fact, Monroe, a married father of three, has publicly stated that he does not use marijuana.
Conversely, the 29-year old has willingly embraced this public role of marijuana missionary, to help, as he sees it, his NFL brethren steer clear of addiction to -- and premature death from -- painkillers. (And he's risking the ire of NFL owners and a financial counter-attack, specifically, that no team may ever sign him to another contract.)
Monroe isn't mincing words or operating with half measures. The University of Virginia graduate has established himself a firebrand and trailblazer, chastising NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, granting major media interviews, donating to medical research while setting up a website complete with position statements and proclamations.
On eugenemonroe.com he writes that on March 9, he "became the first active NFL player to openly advocate for the use of cannabinoids to treat chronic pain and sports-related injuries. It's time for the NFL to change its archaic standards. ... For too long I've watched my teammates and good friends battle with opioid addiction and leave the game with a long road ahead; it's time to make a change."
At least, that's Monroe's contention, because as far as having medical evidence that pot is better than pills as a pain reliever, he cannot provide any. No one can. There's no evidence that smoking pot provides pain relief, so from a scientific standpoint his mission is on shaky ground at best. What Monroe does point to, as compelling reasons why players should be free to medicate with marijuana as they grind through the constant physical punishment they endure, are anecdotes. And while testimonials may be thought provoking as isolated "success" stories, taken alone they surely are not proof of anything that would make a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and the most-watched sport in America, alter its drug policy.
Currently, the NFL conducts drug testing of its players and pot is on the banned list. And Monroe wants to see cannabis removed.
"Players are tested for marijuana between April 20 and Aug. 9, when teams are in training camp," according to the New York Times. "If a player does not test positive, he is not tested again that year. Players who test positive the first time are referred to the league’s substance-abuse program. Subsequent violations result in escalating punishments: a two-game fine, a four-game fine, a four-game suspension, a 10-game suspension and a one-year banishment."
While the NFL decides how -- or if -- to respond directly to Monroe's broadsides, this Ravens player is trying to advance the ball on the front of medical research, with personal donations to fund studies. Monroe recently gave $80,000 to the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University. And seeking answers through science is laudable.
After all, as a seemingly thoughtful individual looking out for the well-being of current and future pro players, Monroe knows he needs more than just oft-told stories making the rounds that marijuana is the answer to NFL's painkiller problem.
Next week we'll have more on this topic, with Part II of our story.