North Texas Football Vet Marvin Washington Wants the NFL to Expand the Rules on Cannabis

After a long career in football, Marvin Washington wants to help other injured athletes as an advocate for treatments with cannibanoids and mushrooms.
After a long career in football, Marvin Washington wants to help other injured athletes as an advocate for treatments with cannibanoids and mushrooms. George Rose/Getty
For Marvin Washington, sleep isn’t easy to come by. Taking a combination of CBD and melatonin helps, but most days he is out of bed by 2 a.m. If he’s lucky, 2:30.

Insomnia hardly made Washington unique among the men with whom he played during an 11-year NFL career.

“I talk to all of my ex-teammates, and they don’t sleep either,” Washington says.

He can't confirm without a diagnosis — which he can't get until a post mortem examination is performed on his brain — but Washington believes he knows why his body forces him to rise so early.

“If Frank Gifford died with CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] I think we [NFL players] all have it,” Washington says. “He was on Monday Night Football for three decades — golden boy, nice life, but when he died his family donated his brain because there had to be something there. When it’s all said and done, I am going to donate my brain; they are going to find levels of CTE.”

Washington, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound defensive end who racked up 40.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles across a career spent with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos from 1989 through 1999, likens life on the football field to repeatedly ramming his head into a wall — every day.

“One of my buddies said, ‘You [non-football players] want to talk about [football related] brain injury,'" Washington says. "'Take your head, stand about 3 feet away from a wall and bang it into it 70 times a day and then we can talk about [CTE],'” Washington says.

And then there are the lasting orthopedic dangers of football. Washington remembers tearing his meniscus — cartilage in his knee — during his fifth year playing.

“I was out there the next Sunday and was being told by the coaches and the GM, ‘Hey Marvin, you are going to play this Sunday and you are going to play well.’ I couldn’t play well. I never got healthy that season."

But Washington says he took his shots and anti-inflammatory medication and returned to the field, even when he had to skip practice because his knee was so messed up. Washington was a basketball standout once upon a time at Kimball High School in Dallas and a scholarship hooper for two seasons at the University of Texas at El Paso in the mid-'80s before transferring to the University of Idaho and becoming a football player. Now 56, he knows the best thing he can do for his physical and emotional health is remaining active and engaged.

As soon as he wakes up, he starts "firing off emails,” Washington says. “Then I try to hit the gym around 4:45 a.m. and start my day. The more I work out, the better I feel. If not, my body degrades.”

Washington has become a prominent advocate and entrepreneur in medical cannabis, devoting himself to advancing the use of cannabis and other naturally occurring psychedelic compounds for their utility as pain relievers in lieu of opioids, anxiety aids and treatment options for both post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

“I didn’t know the difference between indica and sativa when I first started,” Washington says with a laugh. “I started as a brand ambassador for a small company. Then I just did a deep dive into it once I started going to conferences and talking to medical practitioners.”

In 2017, he was a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seeking to remove cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug.

Washington has also been active as a board member and investor in several companies, including BudTrader, an online market for cannabis; Athletes for Care, a non-profit that works to use the influence of former professional athletes to advocate for better standards of health and safety for athletes at all levels across the world; and, most prominent, Isodiol, a nutraceutical company that specializes in CBD products.

“I felt like I needed to bring this to the NFL, because making the game safer and better for players isn’t going to come from equipment, it is going to come from science,” Washington says. “I started calling my former union, and we opened up a dialogue. I believe it led to the NFL upping the level [of THC] a player can test positive for.”

“One of my buddies said ‘You [non-football players] want to talk about [football related] brain injury ... Take your head, stand about three feet away from a wall and bang it into it 70 times a day and then we can talk about [CTE],'” –Marvin Washington

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He also has his eye on another bit of natural medicine. Psilocybin a compound found in more than 200 species of fungus, is “the next big moon shot” in plant-based medicine, according to Washington.

“Mushrooms can help you with depression, can help you with anxiety, can heal the brain,” Washington says. “Psychedelics can give your brain and soul a reset. But, used in a responsible way. I’m not talking about tie-dye hippies or whatever. These have been used for thousands of years, and we need to get back to that. This is going to be something in 50 years they look back at us like we were idiots, because we had all this and we banned it.”

Washington describes his current relationship with the NFL as “love-hate.” He still enjoys watching but he would advise parents against letting their kids play.

“I tell parents unless a coach can sit on your couch and tell you little Johnny or little Bobby is not going to get a brain disease that could affect him for the rest of his life, I wouldn’t play,” Washington said. “CTE isn’t exclusive to the NFL either. I know high school guys who are suffering. Why do that? You can get life lessons from every sport. You don’t have to bang your head over 300 times a week in order to learn about perseverance and being tough.”

He also sees big changes to the game in light of worries about player safety.

“Football isn’t the same game it was 50 years ago,” he said. “I think they are going to eliminate special teams. I can see them eliminating the three-point stance and maybe the defense is going to have to start a half-yard off the line of scrimmage.

UTEP coach Don Haskins changed Washington’s life when he encouraged him to trade in his Converse for a pair of cleats.

It’s complicated, but, in spite of the sleepless nights and potential long term health issues, Washington has remained thankful for what football gave him.

“Football gave me and my family so much,” Washington says. “I realize some of the stuff happening with my contemporaries, the way the NFL is still treating us ... I don’t like that. But It’s been a net plus. I’ve been able to travel this world and give my kids a lifestyle I always wanted them to have.”
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