Civil Liberties

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.