In the National Football League, one hit of marijuana can land a player in a substance abuse program. Should he do it again, the player receives a four-game suspension. Another violation turns into eight games on the sideline.
If you’re former wide receiver Josh Gordon or running back Ricky Williams, you’ve already experienced a season without pay for repeated test failures. Williams, one of the greatest college running backs in history and a 10,000-yard rusher in his NFL career, recently said that if the NFL allowed marijuana, he’d likely be in the Hall of Fame. Instead, he sat out two full seasons and parts of others due to failed drug tests.
The 2010 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Run Ricky Run,” revealed that Williams’ use of marijuana was far from recreational. Suffering from severe Social Anxiety Disorder, Williams found relief in marijuana where prescription medications failed to address his condition.
The marijuana issue has become a point of contention between former NFL players and the brass in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office. At a time that the NFL brand has suffered from exposure to its bungling of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the league has remained unwilling to budge on marijuana as a medicinal remedy for its players. Some have blamed this stance on an opioid epidemic that has ravaged the league. While Goodell has said that he would be open to allowing medicinal marijuana as a remedy for concussions, the NFL has slow-walked any progress toward testing its efficacy.
The league has maintained the societal taboo surrounding marijuana, even to the point where a year ago the penalty for a positive test was higher than for being charged with domestic abuse. But reports indicate that players have and will continue to use it.
In June, Williams predicted that 60% to 70% of players use marijuana today.
But Williams argues its benefits as he prepares to open a new gym in San Francisco that caters directly to cannabis smokers. Williams’ estimate is higher than previous ones offered by players of yesteryear. Former Atlanta running back Jamal Anderson, who retired in 2001 after a punishing career, said that at least
40% of players used it during his time, both for recreational and medicinal purposes. Anderson says that use has increased since those days.
In line with Williams’ projection, Anderson said that at least 60% of players use it today based on conversations he has around the league, according to a 2015 interview with Bleacher Report.
NFL players aren’t the only ESPN-featured athletes to embrace marijuana. Professional fighters and jiu jitsu champions have included cannabis as an important part of their training program and health regimen.
The brutality of the sport has many retired NFL players calling for change at the league level to accept marijuana or at the least test it for its medicinal qualities. Some of these players are even putting their money where their mouths are.
Eugene Monroe has been the subject of multiple stories in recent months regarding his push to make the NFL accept medical uses for marijuana. The former NFL offensive lineman was the subject of a recent, harrowing ESPN profile that detailed his haunting experience as a seven-year veteran in the sport. The article details every ache, every pain, every nag and punishment, every single day.
Eugene Monroe began investing in marijuana after a serious ankle injury in 2014. Since then, he has invested in medical marijuana dispensaries in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Monroe credits marijuana for helping him overcome the debilitation of an NFL career, a subject that has become a hot issue among retirees of the league.
Which brings in the plight of ex-NFL quarterback Jim McMahon, who has experienced debilitating health problems after numerous concussions and other injuries during his 15-year career. Before receiving his medicinal marijuana card in 2010 in Arizona, the former Chicago Bears quarterback estimates that he took at least 100 Percocet pills a month to alleviate pain in his shoulders, neck and arms.
McMahon credits medicinal marijuana for not only helping to reduce his pain and improve his sleep, but also for helping him kick a highly addictive habit from his pain medication.
Monroe and McMahon join former players like Jake Plummer, Nate Jackson, Kyle Turley, Derrick Morgan, Tatum Bell, Reuben Droughns and Charlie Adams who have donated time and money to get the NFL to study the health benefits of the drug. The November election just might be the turning point they’ve been awaiting.
The union steps up
After eight of nine states voted to pass cannabis initiatives, some form of marijuana legalization is now happening in the majority of America. Today, 28 states and the District of Columbia have laws permitting marijuana use, a list that now includes the homes of a combined eight NFL teams: California, Massachusetts and Florida.
Now, the players’ union is taking its first real steps toward studying the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
On Thursday, Nov. 10, the union said:
“We are actively looking at the issue of pain management of our players,” said George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs, to the Washington Post. “And studying marijuana as a substance under that context is the direction we are focused on.”
Testing will take time, and it will raise the attention of critics due to its listing as a Schedule I drug. The NFL likely won’t change its policy on medicinal marijuana until it has an adamant case to stand up against U.S. government laws. The matter is even more complicated by the nature of state laws. While 28 states now permit medicinal marijuana, several states home to NFL teams have rejected proposals, notably Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana.
Parity, it seems, is not found in the legal system. The league does review its drug policies each year. The last significant change happened in 2014 when it raised the standard for a failed drug test for cannabis from 15 nanograms per milliliter to 35 ng/ml. Still, it may take until 2020 before any meaningful changes are made, particularly those desired by former NFL players. Others worry that the NFL has more deceptive plans.
Retired Minnesota punter and marijuana advocate Chris Kluwe told Rolling Stone in September that he worries the NFL will use marijuana as a “bargaining chip” to “force the union into some concessions.”
Turning to investment
Ricky Williams may have lost the shot at a Hall of Fame ring, but marijuana will likely offer a positive return in the long run. In June, Williams told Sports Illustrated that he expects to make a significant amount of money from his cannabis investments over the last few years.
Williams, who failed four drug tests between 2002 and 2006, estimates he lost anywhere between
$5 million and $10 million in salary and endorsements during his suspensions. Williams says that his gym and his other investments will produce a return that makes those losses seem minute. Williams, a regular speaker at cannabis investment events, sells marijuana-infused nutritional supplements and plans to open a chain of sports-themed marijuana social clubs.
“That money can make what I lost seem tiny, like pennies,” Williams told SI.
Perhaps, when the time comes, the NFL might consider investments as well to help pay for medical costs for its retired players as well.