The Dallas Cowboys' Owner Is Right: NFL Should Change its Nonsensical Marijuana Prohibition

Jerry Jones is as unlikeable as an NFL owner could be, but he's right about this. Football's prohibition on weed makes no sense for players or teams.


Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/Newscom

If a recent lawsuit filed by former National Football League players is to be believed, professional football teams hand out powerful painkillers by the handful on the sidelines before games, after practices, during halftimes, and just about any time a player complains of any injury or nagging pain.

But while America's most popular sports league is awash in opioids, the NFL maintains a strict rule against players' use of marijuana—either for recreational purposes or as an alternative way to treat aches and pains. Sports are a mirror for the culture that watches them, and the NFL's contradictory positions on those two types of pain treatments certainly reflects both the rising opioid crisis in America and the ongoing effort to come to terms with the tragic and awful consequences of a decades-long war on drugs.

Dallas Cowboys' owner—and the most powerful billionaire in the NFL's inner circle of powerful billionaires—Jerry Jones is pushing the league to reconsider those rules and loosen the ban on marijuana. According to anonymous sources cited by NBC Sports' Mike Florio, Jones raised the issue of marijuana at a closed-door meeting of NFL team owners last week.

Jones "wants the league to drop its prohibition on marijuana use," Florio reported. "Jones was reminded that the issue falls under the umbrella of collective bargaining, which would require the players to make one or more concessions in exchange for significant changes to the marijuana prohibition." The current collective bargaining agreement runs until 2020, so its unlikely the league would be able to change it's policy until then.

Still, it's good to get the discussion started. Jones probably has some self-interested reasons for pursuing such a change—Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas' superstar running back, was spotted at a marijuana dispensary last year when the Cowboys traveled to Seattle for a preseason game (because that's where almost any 21-year old with lots of disposable income visiting Washington State is going to end up, sooner or later), prompting a league "investigation"—but that doesn't mean the league shouldn't seriously consider what he had to say.

The NFL's anti-marijuana stance simply doesn't make much sense as more state governments adopt more liberal views towards medical and recreational weed. A player on the Seattle Seahawks or Denver Broncos (or any of the California-based teams in the league) can buy and use marijuana legally in the state where he spends most of his time during the season, but could face a suspension and a fine if he's caught with it in his system. More than 60 percent of NFL teams (20 of them, out of 32 total) play in states where medical marijuana is legal. Again, this mirrors a society-wide debate over the relationship between legal recreational weed and employment contracts that prohibit the use of marijuana. The league, and individual teams, are within their rights to require certain behavior from their players as a condition of employment, of course, but given the NFL's troubled history with punishing more serious offenses like, say, serial sexual assaults or domestic violence by star players, enforcing an absolute prohibition against marijuana use seems like it should be a lesser priority.

The league's anti-pot policy might make a degree of sense if it was part of an overall effort to prevent teams from using painkillers of any kind, lest some players or teams gain a competitive advantage on the gridiron. That's hardly the case. In fact, the NFL currently is fighting a lawsuit from several former players who allege that official team doctors literally handed out piles of opioids and other painkillers—ignoring federal laws for prescription drugs and disregarding medical guidance—before, during, and after games.

Deadspin reported extensively on the details on the lawsuit last month, including stunning details like this:

On November 22, 2003, the night before an away game in Baltimore, Maryland, trainer Ken Smith gave named Plaintiff Jerry Wunsch an Ambien. The next day, before the game, Coach Holmgren asked Mr. Wunsch if he could play, despite excruciating pain down the whole right side of his body, to which Mr. Wunsch replied "I can't play, Coach. I can't play today. It's my first game. I just can't do it." Coach Holmgren then called Sam Ramsden, the Seahawks' trainer, and asked "what can we do to help Mr. Wunsch play today." Mr. Ramsden brought the doctors over, who gave him a 750 mg dose of Vicodin and Tylenol-Codeine #3, saying they would help, even though Mr. Wunsch was already taking anti-inflammatories as prescribed by his doctors. He played – feeling high – and after half time, the Medications wore off and he told anyone who would listen that he could not play anymore, but Mr. Ramsden, the head trainer, gave him another 750 mg of Vicodin on the field for the second half, telling Mr. Wunsch, "Don't sue me personally for this."

"The medicine being pumped into these guys is just killing people," former player Nate Jackson told Rolling Stone last year, as part of an excellent piece on the league's nonsensical marijuana rules and how they've led to an over-reliance on opioids. "NFL owners think marijuana is something players do to get around the system, not knowing that it's actually allowing them to be in the system. It's allowing them to deal with the rigors of the game."

The NFL's war on marijuana began in the 1980s and actually pre-dates the league's ban on using steroids (marijuana was banned in 1982, steroids the next year). The league implemented suspensions for players caught using weed in an agreement signed with the players union in 1989. Though the current collective bargaining deal loosened some of the NFL's marijuana rules, the league has the strictest punishments among America's major professional sports. A positive test by NFL standards is more than 35 nanograms per milliliter, while Major League Baseball allows 50 nanograms per milliliter and the World Anti-Doping Agency (which sets guidelines for the Olympics and other international events) allows up to 150 nanograms per milliliter.

Players that fail drug tests in the NFL get punished more harshly too. Fines start after a second offense and a fourth offense results in a four game suspension (a quarter of the regular season). By comparison, a player in the National Basketball Association faces a 10 game suspension (about 12 percent of the season) following a fourth offense.

Today, as the rest of America reconsiders the decades-long, endlessly wasteful war on drugs, it only makes sense that the NFL would do the same. In this case—even if it pains many football fans to admit it—Jerry Jones is right.

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  1. As long as the teams accept public monies, I want every player sharp, clean and drug-free.

    1. Well, I want them all as drugged up as possible if they are going to accept public money.

      Quite the dilemma.

      1. I like my NFL players the way I like my women: Muscle-bound and full of anger management issues.

    2. While I don’t completely agree with that statement, there is a certain degree of truth to that. The company I work for regularly sends out reminders that they have an anti drug policy and that use of Marijuana is prohibited. In that reminder they always mention that because we have government contracts we are required to have this policy. While the money the NFL and the teams get, as well as tax payer paid for stadiums, probably don’t technically fall under government contracts, I do agree with the notion that if you take government money, we the people have the right to attach strings, and drug policies I can see as a reasonable string to attach. The classification of Marijuana that puts it onto these drug policy requirements I think is wrong.

  2. Not to be a pedant, but I think Deadspin almost certainly has their “facts” wrong. 1500 mg of hydrocodone (which is the opioid in Vicodin), even delivered as two 750 mg doses a few hours apart, would kill pretty much all but the most seasoned heroin addicts. Add Codeine too? No way. They’re probably confusing the Tylenol dose with the opioid dose. He might have got 5 – 10 mg, total. That’s some fake news, right there.

    1. Not fake news, just shitty research and reporting. Vicodin is hydrocodone and APAP mixed together. So “750 mg of Vicodin” doesn’t really mean much. It was probably 15 mg of hydrocodone total.

    2. 1500 mg of hydrocodone (which is the opioid in Vicodin), even delivered as two 750 mg doses a few hours apart, would kill pretty much all but the most seasoned heroin addicts.

      Maybe he was a seasoned heroin addict, you never know. Especially the way some people say these guys are loaded up with painkillers in order to play. You’re probably right though.

  3. So, why isn’t giving players drugs so they can play through the pain considered performance enhancing doping?

    Taking steroids or HGH to heal faster would probably be better for their health and improve the game.

    I don’t care one way or another about doping in sports. But this seems quite inconsistent.

    1. Drug use in sports is entirely arbitrary. Cortisone, anti-inflammatories, opioids, whatever crazy nonsense Payton Manning went to Europe for; all legal. HGH, red blood cells, certain asthma medications, illegal. It’s absurd.

      #Free Nick Diaz

  4. “Jones was reminded that the issue falls under the umbrella of collective bargaining, which would require the players to make one or more concessions in exchange for significant changes to the marijuana prohibition.”

    IOW, it’s not gonna happen. In all likelihood whatever the player’s union asks for as a concession will be too much for the owner’s to give them.

    Jones probably has some self-interested reasons for pursuing such a change?Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas’ superstar running back, was spotted at a marijuana dispensary last year when the Cowboys traveled to Seattle for a preseason game…

    And one of their better (maybe – it’s hard to know since he’s been under suspensions for almost his entire career) pass rushers, Randy Gregory, was hit with back to back 4 and 10 game suspensions last season, and then just in time for the playoff a year long suspension (for missing a drug test – not failing, just missing). It just so happens that one the Cowboy’s biggest weaknesses has been pass rushing.

    1. “whatever the player’s union asks for as a concession will be too much for the owner’s to give them”

      More likely the owners are going to dangle this out their to get concessions from the players. How many players want marijuana prohibition in their sport? Players would get rid of prohibition for nothing. What causes a problem is when the owners tie this with say a 1% decrease in pay. Now if your Ricky Williams that would be a good deal but if you are a guy who never smokes the evil reefer then you wouldn’t think that is a good deal.

  5. Personal xperience: MJ is a miracle drug. It works much better than painkillers for cutting into muscle aches.
    Other people suffer headaches and don’t bother with it.
    What’s the big deal?

    1. Well?, since it increases intracranial pressure, headaches are one of the few maladies it isn’t good for.

      1. Can you provide a link to the source of your evidence?

  6. the rising opoid crisis in America

    1. Learn to spell, Boehm. Common misspellings aren’t variants, they’re wrong.

    2. What’s with this “rising crisis” bullshit? I’m old enough to remember when reason campaigned AGAINST moral panics.

    1. How many people need to die each year of opioid overdose until you consider it a crisis?

      Looks like we’re at 30k+ right now.

      Overdose Death Rates

      1. Wake me up when they reach the levels of Dachau!

        /Hazel Meade.

      2. According to the bar graph prescription opioid death rates peaked in 2010.
        at around 17k

        Your 30k number features this disclaimer:

        Included in this number are opioid analgesics, along with heroin and illicit synthetic opioids.

      3. A crisis worthy of federal intervention? A shitload. Because the negative effect of federal intervention are massive and permanent.

      4. I guess the suicides from people who can’t deal with the pain levels they’re being cut back to are simply not enough to make a difference. Shoot – maybe it’s planned that way. After all, people with chronic pain are also generally high cost patients.

  7. which would require the players to make one or more concessions in exchange for significant changes to the marijuana prohibition.

    If the owners want it, and the players want it, why would it require “concessions” from the players?

  8. Why is Jerry Jones unlikeable? He paid for Jerry world out of his own pocket, with no financing tricks or taxpayer fleecing, which alone puts him in the top, well, top one of most likeable owners. I still hope the cowboys end up breaking the Cubs championship drought record, but it’s not anything personal against Jones. Just, you know, fuck Dallas in general.

  9. Can anyone tell me what 35, 50 and 150 nanograms per ml is equivalent too in terms of how much you would have to smoke, and possibly how long you would have to wait to fall below that amount? Numerically they are vastly different, but in terms of how much you can use and still be within the limits it may be a moot point. For example if a single joint is, just to pull a number, 2000ng/ml and it takes say 2 week to fall below 150 for that one joint, but only another day to drop below 50 and an additional day to get below 35, than realistically the difference in those numbers are irrelevant. But if one joint is say 50ng/ml than it is very relevant.

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