Pro athletes aren't altogether uncommon on Capitol Hill. Former New York Knick Bill Bradley and NFL luminaries Steve Largent and Jack Kemp recently served prominent stints in Congress, and baseball Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning continues to call Washington, DC his home away from home. Nevertheless, last month's appearance by former Dallas Cowboy Mark Stepnoski in the nation's capitol raised more than its share of political eyebrows.
Standing 6'2″, with shoulder-length hair and a diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring prominently displayed on his right hand, Stepnoski, 36, typically stands out in a crowd. His recent visit to Washington DC was no exception. But even more striking than his presence on Capitol Hill was his purpose: Mark Stepnoski is one of the nation's leading advocates for the liberalization of America's pot laws.
"Prohibition has been going on for decades and is a proven failure," he says. "Drugs are more prevalent than ever and [the number of Americans using drugs] has not changed … My belief is that if something isn't working then it's time to try something else."
For Stepnoski, that "something else" includes immediately decriminalizing—and perhaps down the road, legalizing—marijuana. "It's hypocritical to imprison people for using a substance that's been scientifically proven to be safer than many other legal substances," he argues. "It makes no sense to imprison people for using a non-lethal product like marijuana."
Since retiring from the NFL in 2001 after 13 years playing center in Dallas, Houston and Tennessee, Stepnoski's gone full throttle to make pot decriminalization a political reality. He's traded his number-53 jersey for a suit and tie, and accepted a position as the president of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
"They most closely represented what I believed," Stepnoski says of his decision to align with NORML, which lobbies for the legalization of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes. "It doesn't make sense to use our fiscal resources imprisoning non-violent drug offenders, particularly marijuana smokers. It's counterproductive to spend $25,000 a year locking somebody up because they got caught with a couple of joints."
Stepnoski's first order of business is to persuade the Texas legislature to amend the state's notorious pot laws, which impose six-months in jail and a $2,000 fine for those caught with even minor amounts of weed. "I've lived in Texas on and off for 13 years, and I'm embarrassed by the fact that it has the highest incarceration rate in America," he says. In addition, more than half of Texas' estimated 104,000 annual drug-related arrests are for marijuana possession. Stepnoski hopes that passage of House Bill 715, which would reduce marijuana possession penalties of up to an ounce of pot to a fine-only offense, will help change that fact, but admits that the bill's chances this year are slim.
Nevertheless, it's likely that Stepnoski's second goal—to persuade the federal government to cease arresting pot smokers—may prove even more elusive, particularly given Washington's increasingly conservative political climate. When it comes to the notion of reevaluating the drug war, it appears Capitol Hill's "steel curtain" is even tougher than Pittsburgh's. Stepnoski, who recently spent two days in DC meeting with various members of Congress, still refuses to chalk up his recent visit as one for the loss column.
"Some of the aides agreed with me," he notes enthusiastically. "But getting their boss to agree is a whole different story. Too many of the old stereotypes still exist."
If anyone can help to break those stereotypes, it's Stepnoski. His academic honors (he was a member of the National Honors Society at Cathedral Prep high school in Erie, PA and a Hall of Fame scholar athlete at the University of Pittsburgh) and athletic credentials (Stepnoski played on two Super Bowl championship teams, made five consecutive Pro-Bowl appearances, and holds NFL "All-Decade" honors for the 1990s) speak for themselves. "Sure, drugs could destroy dreams if people choose not to be responsible about their use," says Stepnoski, who admits he smoked pot occasionally throughout his pro career, "but that describes such a small percentage of people over all who use drugs. For example, eighty million Americans have tried marijuana; if it destroyed dreams, we'd have a nation of broken dreams. Most people have better things to do than sit around getting high or drunk all day."
Stepnoski certainly did. At one point in his career, he started 48 consecutive games as an NFL center—a remarkable feat for such a physically punishing position. (Though he denies ever smoking marijuana prior to a game, Stepnoski does admit lighting up after games to help relieve the aches and pains he suffered on the playing field.) Today he brings that same drive and determination to his lobbying efforts, and refuses to be discouraged by critics who argue that his political beliefs send the "wrong message" to children.
"Just because I'm an advocate for a change in policy does not mean that I'm an advocate for [use of] the substance itself," he says. "I've come out and said that smoking marijuana occasionally has never prevented me from attaining the goals I've set for myself. How that sends the wrong message to someone I don't know. That's just giving an accurate account of my past."
Nor is Stepnoski discouraged by the reluctance of politicians to move forward on the drug reform issue. Rather, the five-time Pro Bowler believes that Congress will either catch up to the prevailing public opinion or be sacked by the voters.
"As time goes on, the political paradigm will shift in our favor because you can only argue with truth and reason for so long," Stepnoski concludes. "It's been said that the truth goes through three stages. First it's ridiculed. Then it's violently opposed. Then it's accepted as self-evident. I think right now we're somewhere between the 'violently opposed' and 'self-evident' stage, but hopefully a little closer to the latter than the former."
If so, the term Super Bowl may one day take on an entirely new meaning.