Seantrel Henderson, a third-year offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills, is facing his second suspension of the season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse rules. But Henderson's case is unusual because it raises fresh questions about the approach to pain management and changing attitudes about the legalization of marijuana.
What makes Henderson's situation unique is that he uses marijuana, which is legal in many states but prohibited under the collective bargaining agreement in the NFL, to combat the pain from Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that just this year has caused him to have two surgeries. In January, 21/2 feet of his colon were removed and in April he underwent surgery to reattach his intestines. In the interim, he wore an ileostomy bag and lost 50 pounds. He chose not to appeal the four-game suspension he received in September, his first of the season.
But Henderson, a former Miami Hurricane, is expected to appeal what would be a 10-game suspension for this second offense for using a banned substance. The NFL is expected to decide his punishment this week and nfl.com's Ian Rapoport reports that Henderson may take the matter to court.
"Merciful or not, there is no medical exception that the NFL will accept. It doesn't matter that Seantrel is battling Crohn's disease, and has had his intestines outside his body," his agent, Brian Fettner, told ESPN's Adam Schefter in September after the first suspension. "It doesn't matter how you take it, if you digest the cannabis, that's it. And they don't care."
Fettner went on to explain their reasoning for not appealing the first time around, saying, "So you can appeal and lose, and push it back, or you can get it over with. Per the negotiated letter of law, it seems like a futile appeal. We don't want to waste anyone's time. We want Seantrel back as soon as possible."
That apparently will not be his attitude this time. Many NFL players are finding that marijuana offers a safer alternative to pain management than anti-inflammatory medication and are beginning to push for the NFL and the NFL Players Association to reconsider the substance abuse rules that the two sides negotiated.
For the 24-year-old Henderson, who missed the last five games in the 2015 season as he dealt with Crohn's complications that led to surgeries, the problems are debilitating. And almost everything, from opioids to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, carries serious side effects.
"I was weak," he told the Palm Beach Post. "At first I couldn't stand up on my own. I felt so weak. It was terrible. I didn't like it at all. I kept walking and walking around the hospital."
An unnamed source told NFL.com, "He needs cannabis. You can't take painkillers with the way his intestines are."
Attitudes are changing, but change may not come swiftly enough for Henderson. After more states legalized marijuana use in the November elections, the NFL Players Association said it is actively studying the possibility of allowing players to use it for pain management.
"Marijuana is still governed by our collective bargaining agreement," George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director of external affairs, said earlier this month. "And while some states have moved in a more progressive direction, that fact still remains.
"We are actively looking at the issue of pain management of our players. And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on."
Eugene Monroe, the former NFL player who is a leading advocate for marijuana as a painkiller, explained to the Washington Post the distinctions that make it preferable.
"Whereas opioids can lead to addiction, organ damage and overdose, cannabis is not addictive and doesn't cause death. Cannabis can treat chronic pain as effectively as opioids, and in cases in which opioids are necessary, such as after surgery, using cannabis reduces the necessary dosage, thereby reducing the risk of addiction.
"He learned the differences among at least 113 cannabinoids marijuana contains. THC is the psychoactive compound, the reason recreational users seek it. But cannabidiol, or CBD, provides analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. CBD can be extracted into oil and administered in pill form that doesn't render a high. Monroe came to believe the majority of what he had been taught about marijuana was a lie, the harm it caused overblown and the potential benefits ignored."
It seems unlikely, though, that increased information and swiftly changing attitudes will come through to help Henderson this season.