In a roundtable discussion organized by ESPN, NFL players met with Bengals offensive tackle and NFLPA president Eric Winston to discuss medical marijuana, painkillers, Thursday night games, playoff expansion and the NFL combine, among other issues facing the league.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. were among the participants in the conversation, held last week at a resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the annual meeting of player representatives and the NFL Players Association.
"Things are changing," Winston said. "You see a different sort of player that's playing in the league. Players are much more aware of the different things that are going on in the country, and technology has allowed guys to learn about financial concepts or legal concepts that they didn't know about or may not have been able to learn before. Players are much more aware, and I think that makes a league that's much more aware."
Among the highlights from the hourlong conversation:
Thursday night games: Earlier this year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of Thursday night games: "[The injury rates are] slightly lower than any other games. We've seen high-quality football on Thursday nights." But the players said the issues with Thursday games go beyond just injuries.
"It's bad, low quality," Harris said. "I'm sorry. Guys are feeling their way into the game. The real game doesn't start until the third quarter. The body's not ready, you're not physically ready to play at your peak performance. Mentally, you're going into the game where you might be playing blind. Guys are cramming mentally."
Jenkins said the actual game isn't the problem: "It's not that we don't feel we can perform on the stage, because if you put us on a field and turn on the lights, we're going to play. The part that they don't explain and can't articulate is what it takes for us to get ready for a Sunday night game, let alone a Thursday night game. There are a lot of people on their fantasy apps for a Sunday night game knowing someone is a game-time decision. Is he going to play or not? Now imagine what that is on a Thursday, where most times [during the week] we can't even practice because it would be too much on our bodies to even get to that game. Most guys are just walking through, practicing in baseball caps, trying to recover as fast as we can to get to that game. So if we don't have to put ourselves in that type of environment or risk, we'd rather not do that as players, because we already give a lot for this game to play on a weekly basis."
"We have a lot of guys who don't play on Thursday [because of injury] who might have played on Sunday," Winston said. "Those stats don't take into account what do guys feel like going into the game and what do they feel like coming out of the game? Do they exacerbate injuries because they didn't get three more days of rest? Do they try to play on an injury? You can make stats tell you whatever you want."
Expanded playoffs: Goodell said in April 2016 that expanding the playoffs "will likely happen at some point." The players are not as enthusiastic about the idea.
"[We'd support expansion if] you take away two preseason games and two regular-season games and raise our pay in it," Sherman said. "Guys go to the playoffs and make less than rookie minimum. That's quite the issue. Some guys have never reached the playoffs in their careers and they're thinking, 'It's a huge deal when you make the playoffs.' They get there and see their checks and they're like, 'Wait a minute. Did I get fined? Where's the rest? Did they leave something out?'"
Jenkins said he worries about watering down the impact of the regular season. "It's already hard in a 16-game season," he said. "Every loss counts. Sometimes you can recover, but they all have implications. If you take away some of that importance, then it becomes like basketball where you don't have to watch until the playoffs. I don't watch the NBA until it starts getting to playoff time because the games don't matter. Every game matters in our league, and we don't want to take away from that importance."
He added: "It sounds nice [to say we're playing for the diamonds in the Super Bowl rings], but the owners are making a nice check off the playoffs. When there's money on the table, it's easy to look at the players like, 'Hey, you're just playing for a championship, right?'"
Painkillers: A group of former players is suing the NFL, alleging team doctors were reckless with painkillers, sometimes illegally prescribing them to treat injuries.
Winston said the NFLPA would not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, "but I can tell you, just from a personal perspective, seeing what I've seen from 11 years going on 12 now [in the NFL], the opioid problem is real. ... I can tell you I've seen it with my friends in the NFL. I've had teammates who have struggled with it and gotten addicted to opiates.
"It's not something to be ashamed of. It's all through our communities. The locker room is just a microcosm of society. As a society we have to have a conversation about what drugs are really bad, and how are we treating pain, how are we treating depression, how are we treating all of these societal effects. We've got to come up with solutions, and we're going to work all we can as a union to try to figure it out for our players. But to think that it's just happening in the NFL, you don't have your eyes open."
Jenkins said NFL players know that pain comes with the job. "Everybody who plays in the league is going to get hurt at some point in time. It's kind of what we signed up for; we understand those risks," he said. "But there's a fine line between being hurt and being injured. A lot of times we've been in situations where we have to decide that for ourselves. What we're trying to do now as players and a union is find ways to educate guys to make that decision properly and look at alternative ways to deal with pain and injury."
"It's such a unique game and dynamic," Sherman said. "The NBA will say, 'Ah, it's an older player, he's kind of banged up, we're going to rest you a couple of days.' The NFL doesn't really work that way. The season's too short, guys are too stubborn, guys need to make their money, everything is on the line. If you start getting to the point where doctors are holding guys out, then they're putting their jobs on the line because it's a production business, and they work for the team. It is in their best interest to work in the best interest of that team, not the player. That's where they say you need somebody that's totally independent of the team to kind of make those decisions.'
Medical marijuana: "It's not just about marijuana. I think we're getting into a stage over the next 10 years where we're going to see a lot of different options [for treating pain]," Winston said. "There are topical creams that I see guys using of natural products for anti-inflammatory reasons instead of ingesting eight Advil a day. ... It's on us as a union to go and do the research, whether it's marijuana or topical creams, whatever is new that's going to come out. Is it better for our players than what's currently out?"
Jenkins said it's an issue of health and wellness. "We talk about this all the time, whether it be the NFL or the NFLPA. We're out for the safety of our players," he said. "If there are other options, as a player in the league, I want those who are in charge of making sure we can do this the safest way possible to exhaust all resources. If marijuana is out there as one, we need to do the research. If something else is out there, we need to do the research, regardless of what other people are thinking."
Scouting combine: This year, the NFL did not invite college prospects to the combine who had serious off-field issues while they were in school, most notably Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon and Mississippi quarterback Chad Kelly.
"We have to be careful as a league when we let public pressure start to change everything that we do," Jenkins said. "The combine is strictly for evaluating prospects that are coming into this league. That's it. We don't need to start excluding people because of things in their past. This is an evaluation; just keep it at that and keep politics out of it."
Love of the game: Former Browns and Dolphins tight end Jordan Cameron recently announced his retirement, in part after suffering four concussions in six seasons. At the time, Cameron said, "I don't think a lot of these guys love football, to be honest."
Members of ESPN's roundtable said most NFL players do love the game, but they walk away because they are now more aware of what the game does to their bodies and their quality of life.
"Most guys love the game. Most times you get kicked out whether you choose to or not," Jenkins said. "But the guys who leave on their terms usually walk away from the game because that risk/reward just isn't where it's at, whether it's training camp and the amount of wear and tear you put on your body is just not worth it at that time. They might love the game, but they don't love it enough to keep doing that. You'll see guys walk away from substantial money because it's just not worth it. That's the nature of this game. That's how hard it is to play at this level."
Added Harris: "You've got to [love it to play]. It's a lot of pressure, it's hard work, and you've got to have a drive for this. The great players in this league really love this game and really put their heart and soul in this game."