I know I tend to write a lot about the NFL and its contentious relationship with cannabis, but here’s a little more. Former Heisman trophy winner and star running back, Ricky Williams (retired in 2011), offered some interesting thoughts on the new NFL cannabis threshold installed in September. Williams was twice suspended for using cannabis and says that if he played under today’s cannabis threshold, he would never have been suspended. He also thinks that players get a free pass of sorts regarding substance use.
“NFL players are tested once a year — for marijuana, opiates, amphetamines and other illegal drugs — between April 20 and Aug. 9. Pass the test, and a player is good until next year. But those who test positive must enter intervention programs in which they can be tested more frequently and where more positive tests trigger escalating penalties. At certain steps of the new policy, a player subject to discipline for a positive test for marijuana is eligible for a 10-game suspension, instead of a full year under the old policy. That’s why Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is scheduled to return to the team for its Nov. 23 game at the Atlanta Falcons. Gordon originally was suspended for a full year after testing positive in March. His A sample measured 16 nanograms per milliliter and his B sample measured 13.6, according to multiple news reports. If the A sample is positive, then the B sample need show only trace amounts to confirm the A sample, even if the B sample is below the threshold. Williams says it is simply bad luck to have an A sample above the threshold and a B sample below because the samples come from the same specimen and, if reversed, a player would pass because if the A sample is below the threshold, testers do not look at the B sample.”
That does seem like a pretty flawed approach, especially considering the number of false positives these types of test are known to generate. The former cannabis threshold in the NFL was 15 nanograms. The new standard is 35 nanograms. To the average person, the difference between 15 parts per billion and 35 parts per billion is mathematically insignificant. But to players such as Williams and Josh Gordon, it’s the difference between a crushed reputation and literally no action whatsoever.
Williams echoed my own thoughts on why the league has such a draconian, convoluted substance abuse policy. Veiled in a guise of player safety, this seems much more like a head-office image issue. “I think if you ask the NFL, they’d say the drug program is for our safety,” Williams says. “But I think it’s more to protect the image of the league.”
Additionally, Vice President of CannLabs, Robert Farrell, was quoted as saying that he believes the NFL’s cannabis policy is “based on society’s moral judgment of what a player should be off the field and less on the science and the medicinal. We have 80 years of reefer madness that has colored and tainted our perception of a medicine.”
I can see this angle as well. Pro sports has a long history in our culture and, though it’s often unfounded, players are expected to behave like statesmen. I agree to an extent. Insofar as young people idolize these athletes, I don’t want them espousing domestic violence, shooting guns off, or driving while impaired. Whether they asked for it or not, people are looking up to these players. But if we peel back the onion a bit on cannabis and see why players seem to seek it out, I think it can paint a fair image of weed while still keeping league reputation in tact.
So why do players use cannabis? I’ll let Williams tell you why he used marijuana as a player.
“It’s easier on your liver. It doesn’t cut your awareness off from your body, the way most pain medications do. It actually increases awareness of your body. So for instance when I played and I smoked, my body would relax and I’d go in the room and stretch a little bit and do some yoga. And relaxing would help my body recover faster. It’s interesting that people talk about physical benefits. I think there are some psychological benefits, too, especially something like the NFL where the stress level is so high. It helps you relax, and everyone knows if your muscles relax the blood is going to flow, which means more blood, more oxygen, more nutrients, which decreases healing time.”
Far from the debaucherous party-boy image the league is worried about evincing, players who use cannabis are seemingly seeking it out as an alternative to pharmaceuticals, which can leave them feeling disconnected from their injury. Cannabis seems to lessen the pain while still leaving the player connected to their injury, so they can trust their own body’s biofeedback. Take a pitcher who gets cortisone shots in a hurt shoulder… sure, he can keep pitching a little longer, but just because he can’t feel the pain any longer doesn’t mean that he’s not further damaging the injury.
Pain can be a gift, it tells us when we need to be cautious, when we are reaching the end our of range of mobility or when we need to rest. Pharmaceuticals manage pain by shutting down all your sensory receptors. Cannabis lessens pain while allowing you to still be aware of the injury, so you can treat it more kindly and, thus, heal faster.
So, really, using cannabis could grow to be seen as a positive influence around the league. Also, considering the strong and growing evidence that cannabis can act as a potent neuroprotectant, might it reach a point where the league is criticized for NOT allowing players to use cannabis?