David Wells won 239 games over a 21-year Major League Baseball career in which he struck out 2,201 batters, pitched for two World Series Championship teams, and threw a perfect game. But despite that success, Wells’ rotund frame ballooned in the latter half of his career, and his body became racked by injury.
There was back surgery in 2003, knee surgery in 2004, and a number of nagging injuries that hampered the three-time All-Star throughout his two decades in baseball. And like many pro athletes, particularly those who played in his era, Wells turned to prescription drugs to combat the pain.
Wells has estimated that he took drugs like Percocet “75 to 80% of the time” for much of his career and into retirement—that is, until he saw a news story about a young girl whose seizures were cured by cannabidiol (CBD). Wells now credits CBD for the reason he’s been able to kick his painkiller habit and says he wishes he could have taken it while he was still active.
Public perception about CBD is rapidly changing, and an interest in its benefits is higher than ever before. Though Wells’ playing days are long behind him, could CBD help other athletes battle the same types of aches and pains? Here’s a look at how some of our favorite sports leagues feel about athletes using CBD.
Founded in 2017, Big3 may not be a household name quite yet, but the 3-on-3 basketball league created by hip hop mogul/actor Ice Cube has a spot in the hearts of hardcore basketball fans everywhere. The league has gained headlines by implementing unusual rules like its four-point zones and filling its rosters with former NBA players like Baron Davis and Amar’e Stoudemire.
But Big3 also got quite a bit of publicity in 2018 when it became the first professional sports league in the U.S. to allow its players to use CBD for pain management and recovery. In a statement released with the announcement, Big3 touted the pain-relieving benefits CBD could offer to its players, a claim that has been proven repeatedly by medical research.
This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about CBD and golf, but it is the first time that one of the sport’s best has admitted to using CBD to keep his body injury-free. Bubba Watson, a two-time winner of the Masters, has been very vocal recently about his feelings on CBD. In fact, Watson believes in its use so strongly that he entered into a partnership with a company that produces a variety of CBD-infused products. According to Forbes.com, Watson’s visor will be emblazoned on both sides with that company’s logo when he participates in tournaments.
The PGA Tour briefly (and vaguely) commented on CBD use when it issued a warning in April that read: “As with all supplements, the PGA Tour warns players who inquire about CBD products that there is no guarantee a supplement contains what is listed on the label, therefore there is a risk that a supplement may contain a prohibited substance.”
Nevertheless, Watson appears unfazed by the threat, saying he is confident that the way he uses CBD is well within the rules set forth by the PGA.
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency
A monumental victory for athletes took place in 2018 when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) removed CBD from its prohibited list and the S8 Cannabinoids category. For those of you who don’t know, the USADA is the national anti-doping organization for Olympic, Paralympic, Pan American, and Parapan American sport. Basically, the organization is responsible for ensuring athletes at that level aren’t using drugs that may give them an unfair advantage.
While allowing athletes to use CBD could have a substantial physical impact, the USADA’s acceptance of CBD as a permitted substance speaks volumes to its legitimacy and medicinal value. It’s important to note that while CBD is permitted under USADA guidelines, language on its site makes it very clear that all other cannabinoids are still prohibited in competition.
National Collegiate Athletic Association
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, better known as the NCAA, has been a lightning rod for criticism over what some consider to be unfair treatment of its student-athletes. But one of the more heartbreaking stories we’ve heard is the case of CJ Harris, a promising young defensive back who appeared set to join the Auburn University football team last year—except the NCAA ruled him ineligible before he stepped foot on campus.
Why was Harris ruled ineligible? Because he takes CBD oil to combat epilepsy, a neurological disorder that causes potentially life-threatening seizures. Since beginning to use CBD oil in 2017, Harris has not had a single seizure. Though he lost his chance to play college football at the highest level—at least for now—Harris has since enrolled in a community college in Kansas to continue his football career. Current NCAA rules wouldn’t allow Harris to participate at the Division I (FBS) or II levels.
While CBD is not on the NCAA’s most recent list of banned drugs, there’s a catch-all clarifier that refers to substances chemically related to those that the NCAA does ban. It goes on to say that even if a substance does not appear on the list, it’s essentially banned by association. In this case, CBD is considered to be chemically related to THC, though the two are not the same compound and CBD is not psychoactive.
National Football League
While the National Football League (NFL) is staunchly against the use of recreational marijuana, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell leading that charge, the league has said they’re aiming to take a less punitive approach for those who test positive. That likely means less punishment and more mandatory treatment to curtail usage. However, the league has been relatively quiet on CBD use.
Goodell’s comments condemning marijuana use because of the negatives associated with smoking have no bearing whatsoever on CBD products that don’t require inhaling. A number of NFL players have been outspoken about their interest in seeing what’s arguably the most violent league in the world take a favorable stance on CBD, but that outcome remains to be seen.
National Hockey League
Those of you who screamed at the screen when we just said the NFL was arguably the most violent league in the world are probably hockey fans. There’s no doubting the physical toll that hockey can take on a player’s body, and unlike some leagues, the National Hockey League (NHL) seems to be less strict on CBD use to treat an injury. As it stands, cannabis is not currently on the NHL’s list of banned substances since it is not performance enhancing.
While the NHL does test for cannabinoids, there is no discipline for testing positive. The NHL/NHLPA committee receives the test results as part of an anonymous review and as fodder for future testing practices.
National Basketball Association
If Big3 Basketball is the cool teenager who gets it, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is its square uncle who thinks everything is dangerous. Though commissioner Adam Silver has indicated an interest in learning more about its use, the NBA maintains its position on medical marijuana remains unchanged and thus is still a banned substance.
Keep an eye on the collective bargaining agreement, which runs through the 2023-24 season. If there are changes to come, they will likely happen when that deal is set for restructuring.
Major League Baseball
One of the more odd arrangements is in Major League Baseball (MLB) and its variations of punishment doled out between major league and minor league players for the use of cannabis. For minor leaguers, one positive test enters the player into a drug rehab program, a second positive test gets the player a 50-game suspension, a third positive test is good for a 100-game suspension, and a fourth positive test gets the player permanently banned from baseball. Did we mention that includes CBD?
Meanwhile, major leaguers do not take part in random drug tests for cannabis. If a player does test positively, the likely punishment is a fine that won’t exceed $35,000. Did we mention the minimum salary for MLB players is $555,000?
Since the beginning of competition, athletes have been looking for ways to improve performance and protect themselves from injury. Whether you’re a weekend golfer, gym rat, or a former big league pitcher like David Wells, there’s no doubt that CBD provides a solution to relieving painful aches and an attractive alternative to opioids that are dangerous and habit-forming. Our hope is that as more researchers unveil their findings on CBD’s benefits, more leagues will follow the trail set by the Big 3 and USADA.