Fail Mary Jane: Marijuana Policies in Professional Sports
How Professional Sports’ Outdated Policies on Marijuana Use Are Hurting the Players, the Fans, and the Game
Super Bowl XLVIII in 2013, pitting the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos, was a historic day. Yes, the Seahawks won the first championship in franchise history, smashing Peyton Manning and company 43-8. But take one look at social media that day and the jokes were bountiful: “the Weed Bowl.” “The Stoner Bowl.” “Smoking Super Bowls.”
Just months earlier, the states of Colorado and Washington had legalized the possession, sale, and consumption of marijuana within their borders, the first states in the nation to do so. And now their respective football teams were meeting in the biggest game of the year, one that would become (until the next Super Bowl) the most watched television event in history.
Standing quietly on the sidelines, two Seahawks players would watch as their teammates won them their Super Bowl rings. Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner had both been suspended for testing positive for marijuana. Thurmond was finishing out a four-game suspension for “violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy”; Browner was fighting for his career, as the free-agent-to-be faced a ban for the following season as well as a repeat offender. In the game for the opposing Broncos was Von Miller, who had missed the first 6 games of the season (out of 16 regular season contests) due to a marijuana suspension. That suspension cost him over $806,000 in salary.
All this for something that was now legal in the states they played in, and something that was widely overlooked by the fans tweeting lame stoner jokes about the Big Game. The Super Bowl was emblematic of the changing times in our country, but was also glaring evidence of professional sports’ misguided stance on cannabis and that view’s detrimental effects on the players, the fans, and the games themselves.
Marijuana is a banned substance in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association (the National Hockey League does not include marijuana among its banned substances), receiving the same treatment as cocaine, heroin, other drugs of abuse, and performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Penalties for players who test positive for marijuana vary by league, but essentially result in a suspension, loss of pay, and a red flag on their professional resume.
These policies are the result of a backlash against harder substances of abuse and the resulting behaviors that marred professional sports decades ago.
- In baseball, several high profile scandals involving cocaine (such as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials and the downfalls of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry) led to a severe crackdown on all drugs by baseball’s commissioner.
- In football, numerous arrests and other bad behavior in the ‘90s led to a strict drug policy.
- In basketball, bad behavior and arrests by players, as well as this 1997 New York Times article claiming “60-70 percent of players smoke marijuana and drink excessively,” led to the implementation of a harsh drug policy.
- This is to say nothing of the Olympics, where marijuana is a banned substance by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 1999 Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was stripped of his gold medal for testing positive for marijuana.
These policies were created during a time when social perception of marijuana was far less advanced than it is now, and so it should be no surprise that marijuana is punishable on the same level as heroin and cocaine. They were created to show the leagues had an iron fist in dealing with drug offenses, a public relations ploy at the expense of the players.
Some 30 years later, people aren’t as threatened by marijuana – in fact, the majority of the country is for its legalization. Americans recognize that marijuana is not a drug of abuse like heroin and cocaine, it is safer and has less adverse effects than alcohol, and for sports fans, that it has much less effect on the integrity of the games than PEDs.
But still, an NFL player can be suspended 4 games (a quarter of the season) for a first-time marijuana test. And they can be suspended an entire season – without accruing time toward free agency – for multiple failed tests, like in the case of Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has also had positive tests for alcohol.
Further adding insult to the injury is that the NFL takes much more serious offenses than marijuana use – something that is legal in 4 states – much more lightly. Case in point: the gross mishandling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, where the Baltimore Ravens running back was initially suspended 2 games (half that of a marijuana suspension) for a domestic violence arrest stemming from an altercation with his then-fiancee. It was only after video was made public of Rice knocking out his fiancee in a hotel elevator that his suspension was upped to a full year and his contract terminated by the Ravens.
A Medical Alternative
In addition to the offensive regard for cannabis held by professional sports, the leagues have exhibited blatant mishandlings of medicine throughout their histories.
It’s no secret in baseball that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the vast majority of players were on amphetamines during games. “Greenies” – amphetamine pills – “were widely available in MLB clubhouses,” Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt wrote in his autobiography. Players, managers, and executives didn’t bat an eye to their consumption.
It’s also no secret that the NFL has done a horrible job of helping players manage pain caused by playing a brutal game. In the 1980s, locker rooms had large dispensers of Advil, Tylenol, and other over-the-counter medications available for players to use, leaving ample room for abuse. Seahawks Pro Bowler Kenny Easley ended up taking 16-20 Advil a day to help deal with an ankle injury, leading to kidney failure. He filed a lawsuit against the Seahawks in 1990 that was later settled out of court.
Today, NFL teams give players high-powered, opioid-based painkillers to deal with the realities of the modern game. These painkillers can have adverse short- and long-term health effects and can be highly addictive, something NFL great Brett Favre found out while coming back from injury. After suffering a seizure related to his addiction he entered a treatment program.
Rather than using addictive, health-adverse painkillers, professional teams could look to the pain management powers of cannabis, specifically high CBD products that don’t deliver a high but do contain all the pharmacological benefits. Players could also receive medical marijuana exemptions, similar to exemptions for Adderall and other prescription drugs, but so far no leagues have plans to do so.
The Hypocrisy of It All
While professional sports continues to conduct witch hunts for marijuana users, they receive billions from alcohol companies. Their players continue to abuse the wares those companies peddle, leading to bad behavior – and worse. The Dallas Cowboys’ Josh Brent killed a teammate in a drunk driving accident. Recently, Knicks star Thabo Sefolosha sustained a season-ending broken fibula while being arrested outside a New York City club at 4 AM after a game – the same scene where fellow NBAer Chris Copeland was stabbed. This is the most recent of many incidents at bars and clubs that have gotten professional athletes injured or arrested. Yet the leagues have no policies against alcohol for their players (unless, in the case of Josh Gordon, they’re enrolled in a league substance abuse program – most likely for an initial drug incident).
There’s no question that league policies concerning marijuana are outdated. And there’s no question that they’re detrimental.
To the players:
- Who lose pay for marijuana-related suspensions
- Who miss games and are unable to help their teams
- Who have a permanent stain on their professional resumes
- Who lose endorsements and other opportunities
To the fans:
- Whose teams unfairly and abruptly lose players for games at a time
- Who witness diluted competition due to suspensions
- Who see punishments meted out that do not fit the supposed crimes
- Who no longer believe that marijuana should be a punishable offense, and do not see their beliefs reflected in league drug policies
And to the games themselves, who lose credibility, co-opt their integrity, and dilute the competition, all because of outdated, hypocritical policies that are not reflective of what the fans truly want.