Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) both randomly drug test players for the presence of marijuana. The National Football League (NFL) does as well. All three professional sports leagues consider marijuana to be a ‘substance of abuse.’ The National Hockey League (NHL) on the other hand only tests for ‘performance enhancing substances,’ of which marijuana is not included.
You don’t hear as many stories about baseball players getting overly harsh penalties for failing drug tests for marijuana, but the NBA and NFL are full of horror stories. The NFL and NBA are particularly harsh when it comes to penalties for marijuana use. The league policies are harmful to the health of players, who are allowed to consume pharmaceutical painkillers and alcohol virtually unchecked. By pushing players away from cannabis and towards more harmful substances, the league is really putting players’ health in jeopardy.
Professional sports leagues’ drug testing policies are ruining lives. Josh Gordon, a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns (NFL team), is a good example of that. Josh Gordon has failed the leagues’ drug test multiple times because of marijuana use, with a bigger penalty being handed down each time. Josh Gordon was suspended for an entire season because he had traces of marijuana in his system. The first test was below the threshold. The second test was barely above the limit. The traces were so low that they could literally have been from second hand cannabis smoke. Josh Gordon is currently on indefinite suspension from the NFL for his most recent drug test failure.
I listen to a lot of sports radio, and after Josh Gordon’s most recent failed test radio figures were practically calling for his head. ‘How could he be so stupid?’ was a very popular, and unfair, question. What if Josh Gordon woofed down a couple of bottles of painkillers each day? Would he still be getting shamed? What if he decided to get smashed drunk each night, specifically drinking alcoholic beverages from companies that SPONSOR the NFL? Would Josh Gordon be forced to basically be unemployed and carry around the ‘marijuana scarlet letter’ for the rest of his life? Something makes me think that wouldn’t be the case.
The stigma around marijuana use is so strong in professional sports that simply knowing that a player ever consumed marijuana is enough to make that player ‘untouchable’ to many in professional sports. A good example of that is the recent NFL draft and the experience of a player named Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil was considered by many to be one of the top draft picks in the last NFL draft. However, after getting his social media accounts hacked someone posted a video on Mr. Tunsil’s Twitter feed of him consuming marijuana, which resulted in his draft stock plummeting. Laremy Tunsil wasn’t less of an athelete after the video than he was prior to the video being made. He wasn’t smaller, he wasn’t weaker, and he wasn’t less skilled. He had simply consumed marijuana, which was enough for him to be ‘stoner shamed’ beyond belief by people in professional sports (all pundits, not players). Laremy Tunsil is still dealing with that unfair ridicule I’m sure.
The suffering of players, both physically through dealing with injuries and mentally through dealing with shame, is bad for the league. Leagues should want what is best for their players, and the current marijuana testing policies are absolutely not what is best for players. Players should be allowed to use a substance that is 114 times safer than alcohol if they choose to do so for recreational purposes, and a substance that is safer than pharmaceutical painkillers if they choose to do so for medical purposes. It’s what is best for the players, which in turn, is what is best for the league.
So what would it take to reform drug testing in the NFL, NBA, and MLB? For starters, I think that we need to see more ex-players advocating for change. More and more former athletes are stepping up like former NBA player Cliff Robinson and former NFL players Ricky Williams and Kyle Turley. I have been lucky enough to hang out with Cliff Robinson quite a bit lately, and his message resonates because he himself has personally felt the wrath of the NBA’s outdated marijuana testing policy. Cliff has also had to deal with marijuana prohibition outside of professional sports, and the penalties and unfair ridicule that has gone with it.
Former athletes can speak more freely about their past (and current) cannabis use, which provides a valuable perspective for the push to reform marijuana laws in professional sports. These athletes have huge fan bases. Those same fans cheered and rooted for their favorite players while they were playing, not carrying that they consume cannabis because after all, a true fan just wants their favorite player(s) to succeed and lead full lives. So when those fans find out after the fact that the player was an avid cannabis consumer, it lets fans know that marijuana did not have a negative impact on the player’s performance and life, and therefore the same should be true for current players as well.
There definitely needs to be more active players stepping up and supporting reform in order to persuade leagues to get on the right side of history. Right now there’s really only one active professional athlete that is doing so, and that athlete is of course NFL player Eugene Monroe. Eugene has been very outspoken lately, donating tens of thousands of dollars to marijuana research, and starting a #cannabis4pain social media campaign. Eugene does not consume cannabis, but does feel that medical cannabis could greatly benefit players, and that players should not be penalized for off the field cannabis use.
More current players need to join Eugene. It’s not an easy thing, as I’m assuming the second a player speaks up about supporting cannabis reform they are almost instantly ‘randomly tested’ for marijuana use. A player in Eugene’s shoes needs to obviously completely refrain from cannabis consumption while speaking out. It’s an important role that players need to take, and it’s definitely not an easy one, but a vital one nonetheless. The more current players speak up, and the more they unite behind one voice, the greater the odds are that the league will listen I think.
The fans of professional sports leagues need to be calling for it too. It’s a sad thing to see fans verbally attack athletes who get caught consuming cannabis, or in Eugene’s case, just simply talk about it. Fans should want what is best for players, and cannabis prohibition is not what is best for players. Fans shouldn’t be OK with players being able to take as much Vicodin as they want, but blast them if that same player wants to vocalize the need for cannabis research like Mr. Monroe does.
The greater marijuana reform community needs to step up and support reform in professional leagues. It’s part of the greater marijuana reform effort, and a reform victory in professional sports would be a huge momentum boost for reform efforts in government. Players are people too. Just because they are elite athletes doesn’t mean that they should be forced to deal with the BS that goes along with cannabis prohibition. Players are not thrown in jail for failing a league drug test for marijuana, but they are persecuted in other harmful ways, and that is something that activists should be fighting just as we fight marijuana prohibition everywhere else.
Players, fans, and activists need to push science and the facts. We need to put it in front of league executives constantly. Any league official who says ‘there needs to be more research’ needs to have present research (of which there is a lot and more happening every day) sent to them early and often. Any league executive that claims that marijuana is harmful needs to be presented with the overwhelming facts that shows that marijuana is much safer than substances that professional sports leagues are perfectly fine with. Marijuana is legal in four states (and DC), with more states on the way. Leagues need to get with the times, and not put their heads in the sand and act like it isn’t 2016.
Team owners and sponsors need to get on board with ending failed marijuana prohibition in professional sports, and put pressure on league executives to get with the times. Sponsors are going to especially play a role in reform in professional sports, as their dollars are really what make the leagues run. I’m hopeful that as marijuana continues to go mainstream, that more and more large league sponsors will start entering the space to advertise, will realize that there is no harm in doing so, and start making it known to leagues that it’s time for a new era.
I think all of that combined will be what is needed to reform marijuana policies and rules in professional sports. But that’s just my opinion. What it will ultimately take is yet to be seen, but the need is undeniable. There’s lots of work to be done to achieve the goal, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Sports cannabis is going to be huge in the future, and will benefit players greatly. Leagues would be smart to get on the train sooner rather than later. To continue to ignore the benefits of cannabis reform is ignorant, and lacks compassion for the very players that the leagues claim to care about.