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Calvin Johnson talks about concussions he’s had, easy access to painkillers

The NFL’s concussion problem is well-known and well-documented. The league’s issue with pain-killers is slightly less well known, but still a huge deal. Retired WR Calvin Johnson had some interesting comments about it.

The NFL has been dealing with a huge problem in recent years as a spotlight has shined on concussions and CTE more and more. The NFL settled a concussion lawsuit, but they still face a lawsuit related to pain-killers, and are far from in the clear on a lot of these issues. And it is doubtful perception is changing much anytime soon.

ESPN’s E:60 investigative series is airing an interview tonight with retired wide receiver Calvin Johnson. In it, Johnson talks about his decision to retire, and points to the physical toll. He talked about how during the first half of his career, Vicodin and other pain-killers were dispensed as easily as candy. He then points to the need to use pain-killers on a regular basis to get through each day, and how he is not prepared to do that anymore:

"I know where my body's at, know how it feels, you know," he said. "I know how it felt to one, get it to go every day. And to be out there actually doing it every day, you know -- the pain to do it. So I'm just like -- and you can't take Toradol and pain medicine every day, you know. You gotta give that stuff a rest, and that was one thing I wasn't willing to do."

Toradol is an anti-inflammatory drug that is part of a lawsuit retired NFL players filed against the league (learn more about Toradol here). The lawsuit was dismissed because of the CBA negotiated between the league and players. It has since been brought against the teams specifically, with claims of intentional misconduct as opposed to just negligence. It survived a motion to dismiss, which means it now advances to the discovery stage. Discovery allows the plaintiffs to access all sorts of information the NFL would likely not want public. Discovery is wider-ranging than what would come up in an actual trial. It allows for broader searches for anything “reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence.” This is broader than the relevance standard we would see in a trial. The NFL settled the concussion lawsuit before discovery, and one has to imagine they want to settle this one before discovery gets underway.

There was also a discussion about concussions. Johnson was never listed on the injury report with a concussion, but acknowledges he has had them.

"Concussions happen," he said. "If not on every play, then they happen like every other, every third play, you know. With all the helmet contact, guys hitting the ground, heads hitting ground. It's simply when your brain touches your skull from the movement or the inertia, man. It's simple to get a concussion, you know. I don't know how many I've had over my career, you know, but I've definitely had my fair share." Johnson didn't come out and blame the league for knowingly putting players at risk, but he described a culture that demands that players play.

"The team doctor, the team trainers, they work for the team. And I love 'em, you know," he said. "They're some good people, you know. They want to see you do good. But at the same time, they work for the team, you know. They're trying to do whatever they can to get you back on the field and make your team look good. So if it's not gonna make the team look good, or if you're not gonna be on the field, then they're tryin' to do whatever they can to make that happen."

The NFL’s concussion problem goes beyond just the big hits where it is pretty clear a player has been concussed. There is talk of “minor” concussions, but when it comes to injuring one’s brain, there really isn’t anything minor about it. It does not strike me as an issue that will ever fully go away. It seems like the best the NFL can do is be more proactive in getting injured players off the field, and make sure they get the time needed to recover. It’s not a simple process since plenty of players will try and hide symptoms, or otherwise fight to get back on the field.

In regards to treatment of pain, research into marijuana is something that will hopefully gain some traction. Multiple current and former NFL players have discussed the idea of using medical marijuana to help with pain issues. Eugene Monroe, Jim McMahon, and others have been active proponents of the medical value. Jake Plummer wrote a guest column for MMQB discussing cannabidiol (CBD), and his hope of to get NFL players involved in a study of current pain-killing options. The NFL has said they cannot give permission to give access to players, leaving it up to the NFLPA. It sounds like there has been a positive dialogue between the NFLPA and the researchers, so now we wait to see if this gains any further traction. That article is a good read on what Plummer hopes to achieve with all this.