Baltimore Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe has grabbed headlines and provoked the ire of his own coach as the first active NFL player to aggressively campaign for the legalization of medicinal marijuana to treat injuries.
The substance is currently banned by the league, which has led to the suspensions of numerous players in recent years. Monroe, who is an eight-year NFL veteran, earnestly believes that the league and the NFL Players Association need to rethink and renegotiate their policies, or risk the depletion of their workforce due to unsustainable physical damage.
"We hear former players speak openly about it, but active players don’t and it’s time that people know the climate of what’s going on and the dire need for it to change," Monroe told MSNBC on Wednesday.
And Monroe has put his money where his mouth is -- donating $80,000 to Johns Hopkins and the University of Pennsylvania to help research the effect that cannabinoid therapies could have on current players, particularly when it comes to the neurological CTE, which has been discovered in a large percentage of former players posthumously. He's also launched a website dedicated to his passion project featuring media reports and research studies which buttress his contention that medicinal marijuana could be a game changer.
"The feedback has been quite incredible," said Monroe. "A combination within the locker room of players who are totally supportive of my initiative, they believe in the same things and also some guys who may not know as much currently but want to become educated."
He became enamored with the medicinal benefits of marijuana after watching a documentary featuring Dr. Sanjay Gupta about epileptic children who saw dramatic improvements in their quality of life after receiving treatments of the drug. Although Monroe has never used it himself for pain -- since it is currently illegal for him to do so -- that hasn't stopped him from spreading the gospel that cannabis is healthier and more effective than the traditional pharmaceuticals that most players use and, in some cases, abuse.
But not everyone is on board with Monroe's campaign for reform. Earlier this year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said that the league is "always" open to reviewing and revising its drug policies, but dismissed the notion of any changes coming in the short term. Meanwhile, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh offered this terse response when asked about Monroe's efforts: "My reaction is that those are his comments. I promise you, he does not speak for the organization."
"Well, maybe from not his perspective," Monroe said. "But I do speak for the organization in terms of the players who make up the team who are fully supportive of my initiative."
Still, by taking this stand -- particularly when it appears to be at odds with coach and the league -- could prove risky for a player who hasn't seen a lot of playing time in recent years, including just three out of 16 last season.
"Before I decided to publicly make statements about the need for the NFL to reform its cannabis policy I did counsel with many of my family and friends, including my agent, and they all made it very clear that they were concerned with any potential career detriment, but quite frankly my health is more important," he said.
In this 18 years playing football Monroe has had this knee operated on three times, his shoulder operated on twice and has suffered numerous concussions. And yet, that hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for the game, which even the Buffalo Bills general manager recently conceded he doesn't think "human beings are supposed to play."
"If you play this game you're like going to experience a great deal of injuries, a great deal of pain" said Monroe. "I love the game of football, I've been playing since I was 11 [years old], and I hope to continue to play. I'm just so adamant about reforming these policies and taking a more progressive approach to health care to protect myself, to protect my peers who I consider my brothers."
"This is a game we grew up loving ... and although [football] is very dangerous we know that cannabis has the promise to make the game safer," he added.
Right now, Monroe's best bet for enacting reform is to convince the NFLPA to embrace his position the next time the re-negotiate terms with the NFL.
"I don’t believe that I’ll stop until they do," said Monroe. "I would pray that we don't need to see anymore unfortunate outcomes before these things change and players get access to healthier medicine."