Say It Ain't So, Ricky!

Why are pro sports bosses so skittish about marijuana?

Can't tell the difference between the sports pages and the police blotter? You're not the only one. These days it seems that everywhere you turn, another star athlete—from Elijah Dukes to Ricky Williams—is in hot water over drugs.

Not for using a drug like alcohol, which recently claimed the life of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock. And not for thee use of performance enhancing substances like amphetamines, which are rumored to be favored among baseball's major-leaguers. And certainly not for the use of anabolic steroids, which seem only to pique the media's interest when used by pro-wrestlers who then murder their wife and six-year-old son.

Rather, it seems that the sports world—and the NFL in particular—is fixated on pot.

This spring the 'big story' was that three of the NFL's top draft picks—Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams, and Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye—admitted experimenting with marijuana while in college. Never mind that all three had recently tested negative for pot on their NFL-mandated drug tests. And never mind that more than half of America's 18 to 25-year-olds have engaged in precisely the same behavior. Sports writers nationwide were still eager to obsess on the athletes' "youthful indiscretions," as if they were a major news story.

In reaction to the media's salvo, spokesmen for the NFL commented that the players' past pot use is a reflection upon their "character." NFL officials declined to comment on why the league tests specifically for pot-a non-performance enhancing substance-but fails to screen for known athletic enhancing agents like human growth hormone.

Earlier this summer, beleaguered Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams sparked a similar media maelstrom when he failed an NFL drug test for marijuana. Already having sat out multiple seasons as punishment for his off-field pot use—Williams claims he smokes marijuana to overcome social anxiety—the former NFL rushing champion likely faces another long, possibly lifetime, dismissal from professional football.

According to the US government, approximately 40 percent of the US population over age 12—that's some 94 million Americans—admit they've smoked pot. This includes citizens from all walks of life, including pro athletes. Indeed, The New York Times once estimated that 70 percent of NBA players smoke marijuana. (Unlike the NFL, the NBA doesn't suspend players for pot.) If the use of marijuana was particularly damaging to health or society, the results would be readily apparent on ESPN every evening.

But pro-athletes are role models, critics inevitably charge. Shouldn't they present a wholesome image to America's young people? Ideally, the answer is yes. Reality is another matter.

It's time for the sports world to admit a dirty little secret: professional athletics are, and have long been, awash in intoxicants. The Colorado Rockies play baseball at Coors Field. Athletes celebrate playoff wins by dousing one another with champagne. For over a decade, some of women's tennis most prestigious events were sponsored by Virginia Slims. Ditto for NASCAR, which until 2003 had many of its biggest races subsidized by Winston cigarettes. There isn't a child alive who watched pro football during the 1980s that doesn't know that Miller Lite beer "tastes great" and is "less filling." Yet the NFL wants us to believe that allowing Ricky Williams to play pro ball would 'send the wrong message' to America's children?

Several weeks ago—around the same time the sports media was buzzing over Calvin Johnson's past pot use—the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the 366-day sentence of Dr. James Shortt. In case you haven't heard of him, Schortt, a physician, was recently convicted of illegally distributing steroids and human growth hormone to at least seven Carolina Panthers players from 2002 to 2004, including several players who were on the field during the team's 2003 Super Bowl season.

Earlier this month, former major league pitcher Rod Beck was found dead in his suburban Phoenix home at age 38. As a player, Beck had a well-known history of alcohol abuse and had a least one stint in drug rehab before his baseball career ended in 2004.

One might expect these latter events to elicit soul-searching throughout the sport's world. Regrettably, it appears that the many in the media and professional sports would rather just focus on 'reefer madness.'

Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC. Mark Stepnoski is a five-time NFL Pro-Bowler who won two Super Bowl championships with the Dallas Cowboys (1993, 1994). He retired from the NFL in 2001 and now serves of NORML's Advisory Board.

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  • ||

    would 'send the wrong message' to America's children

    What they're really afraid of, is that is sends the right one.

  • ||

    Nice article, but I always hate the drug comparison meme. I don't care if people drink, do coke, smoke pot or whatever as long as it doesn't hurt me. I could give a rat's ass whether we focus enough on alcohol.

    Next time tell him to focus on the fact that a player should be free to take any non-performance enhancing drug out there.

  • robc||

    Because its illegal?

    If pot were legal, like alcohol, they wouldnt care at all.

  • ||

    It seems to me that if pot was as bad for a person as is claimed that an athlete-user - or a use in any profession - would smoke themself out of being competitive at their job. But, because it isn't apparent from their behavior or performance, they have to test for it.

    I always say that the reason that we have what many deem a drug problem is that it's actually so difficult to tell when someone's using.

    Stop the WoD!

  • ||

    "Next time tell him to focus on the fact that a player should be free to take any non-performance enhancing drug out there."

    I've pretty much stopped worrying about "performance-enhancers" along with the rest of the pharmacological rainbow. Driving performance enhancing drugs, like recreational drugs, underground makes them more hazardous to the athletes, and restricts their (the athletes') access to good medical advice and assistance.

  • ||

    I just don't want to hear Bonds bitch when Cyborg Aaron regains his home run record.

  • JMR||

    NFL officials declined to comment on why the league tests specifically for pot-a non-performance enhancing substance-but fails to screen for known athletic enhancing agents like human growth hormone.

    I don't believe a reliable test for HGH exists, otherwise they would be testing for it. And I would think Mark Stepnoski knows this.

  • Stephen the Goldberger||

    If i were paying some guy 2-15 million dollars a year to spend all his time working out and keeping his body healthy in tip top shape for athletic competition I'd worry about marijuana usage too. With that said there are certain owners who don't really care about that stuff (like Al Davis of the Raiders) and so they get the "bad charector" guys and sometimes it works out, other times it's disastrous.

  • ||

    In other news:

    As National Football League officials met yesterday to discuss his situation, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick learned that the federal indictment charging him with sponsoring a dogfighting operation will keep him away from football for at least one day.

    As despicable as dogfighting is, et c et c, what necessity dictates the involvement of the Federal Government?

  • Ventifact||

    Stephen --

    What exactly is the impact of marijuana on the physical condition of one's body, particularly as it relates to sports competiteveness? I mean, you don't even have to take it by breathing in burning smoke if you don't want to.

  • ||

    If I was taking the beating a running back takes I'd get high too.Seriously,I saw a drug enforcement agent on TV talking about how dangerous the'new' pot is.He said and I quote'this stuff kills'!With this kind of misimformation floating around is it any wondertaht these guys are penalized so heavly.Does anyone here know of someone dying fron an overdose of pot?

  • ||

    "If i were paying some guy 2-15 million dollars a year to spend all his time working out and keeping his body healthy in tip top shape for athletic competition I'd worry about marijuana usage too."

    Because the professional athletes involved in shootouts in strip club parking lots are invariably stoked to the gills on THC.

  • ||

    """"I just don't want to hear Bonds bitch when Cyborg Aaron regains his home run record.""""

    Does Cyborg Aaron play for the New New York Yankees?

  • ||

    As despicable as dogfighting is, et c et c, what necessity dictates the involvement of the Federal Government?

    Interstate gambling...

  • ||

    I'm thinking that most people have strongly negative associations with drug use, fair or not, and the NFL doesn't want to taint their brand. This is not rocket science. You can hardly expect them to lead the way in social change.

  • Stephen the Goldberger||

    As to Competitiveness I'm not a doctor or an expert on Marijuana's impact on the body but as you say inhaling certainly affects lung capacity/effectiveness. And if he's eating brownies then clearly he's not on an acceptable diet for a professional football player (joke).

    I'd worry about alcohol abuse / partying too (assuming thats what you're implying with the strip club thing).

    In any case a lot of guys have done marijuana and they were terrible or didn't care as much as the other guys. That makes them bad teammates for football. Ricky Williams dug his grave not by doing marijuana but by retiring suddenly and telling everyone that he didn't give a shit.

  • ||

    "I'd worry about marijuana usage too"

    Why?

  • ||

    "I'm thinking that most people have strongly negative associations with drug use, fair or not, and the NFL doesn't want to taint their brand."

    This is a fair point, but then again, why do they go out of their way to test for the drugs that will tarnish their brand? I can understand the NFL taking action if somebody gets busted, but going out of your way to administer and test that taints your own brand seems a bit counterproductive.

  • ||

    This guy almost died from a pot overdose.

  • ||

    Did the writers really argue that the media's interest in steroid use among athletes wasn't piqued until the Chris Benoit story? Paul and Mark, meet Barry Bonds.

  • ||

    Going after pot allows them to present an image of "doing something about drugs".

    Going after booze would be biting the hand that feeds you and going after real performance enhancers might discourage their use and, thus dehance (it's a word if I say it is) the players' performance.

  • ||

    jf,

    You do know that his health was never threatened right? That guy was just a stupid police officer.

  • ||

    Athletes who have had some bad experiences with Alcohol and Steroids, (witness Benoit, Mickey Mantle, etc.) would have been better off smoking pot instead. Certainly the least harmful of the three.

  • Ventifact||

    Stephen I couldn't tell if you gave up trying to press your point, or you stuck by it in a way I can't follow. Coaches at various levels have always made sure their players' partying was within the limits of maintaining performance, regardless of what activities the partying included. For example, New Year's Day practices are often early in the morning and grueling to discourage too much fun the night before. Marijuana, even in large amounts, does not leave one feeling as bad the next day as large amounts of alcohol do. You then go on to say that marijuana is associated with a lack of team spirit, cite only one example, and immediately go on to say that that example actually was not about the MJ anyway...

    And yes, it is more or less impossible to overdose on marijuana (unless it is tainted, which when it happens is basically a result of a] its illegal and therefore underground status or b] someone's idea of a practical joke). The same is not true of alcohol, pro sports' favorite drug when it comes to sponsorship.

  • thoreau||

    ask why marijuana sends pro sports authorities into such a frenzy

    That is a good question. Shouldn't it just make them mellow?

  • ||

    robc hits the nail on the head, in my estimation. If pot was legal, there wouldn't be a whiff of scandal surrounding its use.

    On another, completely unrelated note: Stepnoski,you are the man! I've been a Cowboy fan since the days of Dandy Don Meredith, and Stepnoski was a big part of the team's resurgence in the '90s. I always suspected that the long hair protruding from the back of his helmet was more than a fashion statement.

    And now, he works for NORML? Sweet! I'm curious if he ever got his product from Nate Newton.

  • ||

    Warren,

    Sigh. I need to explicitly use the sarcasm tags from now on, because nobody seems to understand my unique wit.

  • ||

    At a low enough dosage, anything is safe. At a high enough dosage, anything is deadly. Here's an article on people overdosing on water.

  • ||

    I love that the newscaster and someone off screen were laughing about it.

    Maybe the DEA "experts" actually tried some of that "skunk weed" and had a similar experience, and that's why they think it's deadly.

  • ||

    I'm just waiting for some enterprising bureaucrat to claim that smoking dope leads to involvement in dog fighting.

    -jcr

  • Eric Blair||

    On another, completely unrelated note: Stepnoski,you are the man! I've been a Cowboy fan since the days of Dandy Don Meredith, and Stepnoski was a big part of the team's resurgence in the '90s. I always suspected that the long hair protruding from the back of his helmet was more than a fashion statement.

    And now, he works for NORML? Sweet! I'm curious if he ever got his product from Nate Newton.


    Now we know why Nate was so big, he always had the munchies. I'm a big Cowboy fan myself. Back to the days of Staubach, Dorsett, Harvey Martin, Randy White.

    Let's make a distinction between the public and private sector.

    Gubmint has no business telling their citizens what they can or can't put into their own bodies just as a matter of principle and constitutional law. (as if that document matters)

    A PRIVATE business like the NFL is a different story. If they decide that they want to suspend people who drink coffee, it's their right as a private business.

  • x,y||

    If the NFL wanted to make every player wear a tin foil hat, that would be fine. If the NFL wants to ban drugs, illegal or otherwise, that's fine too.

    OTOH, it's despicable for the NFL to single out some drugs for condemnation, e.g., a little herb, while accepting advertising fees and whatnot from other drugs, e.g., booze.

  • ||

    My point was

    1. marijuana doesn't appeal to the type of person who you want to mold and shape on the "fascist" psuedo-collectivist football team. Football is like warfare and most people who take marijuana don't make the best "soldiers" based on my experience with them/taking it. (i.e. ricky williams)

    2. If I'm paying some guy a shitload of money to essentially be my physical specimen, I would be concerned if he weren't an absolute health nut and decided to enjoy recreational drugs which could affect lung capciity, diet, awareness, etc.

  • ||

    I think the message they are worried it sends is that smoking some pot will not prevent you from being able to do or accomplish anything.

    Back in the winter olympics when snowboarding was 1st introduced the guy that won gold tested positive for a trace amount of THC. They toiled over stripping him of his medal because of it. Then I think they reached a realization that to strip him would only imply that he won the gold medal because POT enhanced his performance. This of course goes against all the mis-information we have been fed all these years about pot. According to the anti-pot people he should have never gotten off the couch so how could he win a gold medal unless maybe just maybe pot was not as evil as they claimed.

    So he kept his medal because the olypic committee decided it was less hassle than to strip him and explain how pot was NOW a performance enhancer!

    Pro sports care about the "children," just like politicians do. When they need an out.

  • ||

    While I agree that the NFL has the right as a private company to do as it pleases there's more going on here. Major sports leagues have been used since the early '80s to sell drug testing to the people in a big way. THAT I mind.

  • *||

    the NFL doesn't want to taint their brand.

    For a second I read that as "brand their taint".

    Urkobold?

  • ||

    I had always wondered why NBA players do not seem to want to play defense, get position for rebounds or make smart plays. The estimate that 70% of them smoke pot makes sense.

  • Gray Ghost||

    In my own limited personal experience dealing with pro athletes/other entertainers, many of them occasionally use marijuana because it's an easier/safer way to have a good time than going out and getting drunk. They stay in, smoke a bowl or two, order room service, watch pay per view, go to sleep and thereby avoid getting into trouble at clubs/strip joints with other drunks.

    Saying that mj use is bad by invoking Ricky Williams is akin to using Koren Robinson/Leonard Little to argue for banning alcohol. All of the above are abusers of their particular drugs, and use does not necessarily imply abuse.

    I have no idea how limited marijuana use like I've just described affects lung volume or cardiovascular efficiency. I suspect that the effects are small or are overridden by the mental benefits, else these guys wouldn't do it. Agreed that sports leagues, being private entities, should be able to ban whatever they wish, subject to pre-existing contracts between the league(s), owners, and players.

  • JT Barrie||

    Obviously even top flight athletes like Steve Prefontaine "blow off steam" using drugs in a social setting. He did die in a traffic accident when he was alcohol impaired. The damage done by chronic alcohol use far surpasses that of marijuana. The likelihood of a star athlete becoming addicted is tiny since any drug addiction would interfere with his addiction to athletic excellence, competition and lucrative awards and contracts. Of course if your goal is blaming the drug instead of the person then mere use has to be trashed at every instance.
    Invariably increased drug usage is a precursor to waning zeal and obsession with athletic excellence. Owners want their athletes lean and hungry rather than enjoying the fruits of their labors. Sadly, in many sports the physical abuse oftern mars them for life. Many end up dependent [not addicted] on pain meds to deal with permanent sports injuries.

  • ||

    I thought Reason was a magazine for intelligent people. Perhaps this has changed.

    This is an incredibly simple concept, which I previously assumed could be grasped by most adults. Large commercial operations like the NFL invest millions of dollars in their employees. They have various reasons for wanting those employees not to break the law. Whether or not a justification for said law exists is immaterial to many of these reasons. Furthermore, the NFL has the right to hold its players to any number of criteria, such as being young and very athletic.

    As the senior policy analyst for a group whose ostensible goal is the "reform of marijuana laws," is Paul Armentano really headed in the right direction here? If the NFL were to announce that it no longer intended to test for or disciple marijuana usage, does Mr. Armentano believe the nation's legal system would suddenly follow suit? The perception that an athlete engages in illegal/unwise behavior does not turn public sentiment in favor of that athlete (see Barry Bonds for more on this).

    Also, in regards to the NFL being fixated on the issue of pot, the author noted that the story of the spring was about "three of the NFL's top draft picks." The author failed to note that the actual story was about three of the NCAA's top prospects. The story was known well before the draft. The draft in which these players were drafted 2nd, 4th, and 10th. Kind of amazing in light of the NFL's "skittishness."

    I would hope that Reason does not embarrass itself by printing poorly reasoned and poorly written drivel of this nature again.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

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