Today is the unofficial marijuana holiday known as 4/20. People all over the country will flock to public spaces to light up, or as most of the NBA calls it “Saturday”. Over the past twenty-five years there has been a major cultural shift on the issue of cannabis.
Since 1995, 33 states have legalized medicinal and/or recreational use. Despite the easing of criminal laws, the plant remains illegal under federal law. Last year more than 600,000 people were arrested for possession (the vast majority being young men of color).
As always, culture and politics have a way of spilling over into professional sports. Fields and courts have become arenas for debate and discourse in our country. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re often looking at a mirror image of what America looks like at that moment. (Think Jackie Robison, Wilma Rudolph, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Colin Kaepernick).
So for a quick history lesson, leagues did not start policing marijuana and handing out punishments until the 80’s and 90’s. Baseball and football have inherently had to focus their efforts on performance enhancing drugs, while basketball worked to clean up a league with a scary hard-drug problem in the 70’s and 80’s. Somewhere along the line both the NFL and NBA earned reputations for having smoky locker rooms.
Speaking of that earned reputation, you could easily form a hall of fame team with retired NBA players who have either admitted or been linked to marijuana. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Robert Parish, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups just to name a few. (Fill out the bench with Coaches Phil Jackson and Don Nelson and you have a solid squad).
Former NFL players’ Ricky Williams, Randy Moss, Michael Vick, and Warren Sapp have all faced trouble due to smoke over the years. Currently Josh Gordon and Randy Gregory are serving suspensions for allegedly testing positive for banned substances (not PEDS).
When it comes to enforcing rules, MLB does not test their players annually. The NFL only has one mandatory test each offseason (coincidentally the period begins on 4/20), and the NBA tests six times a year. If players of any three major leagues test positive, the leagues punishments range from rehab programs to suspensions.
It’s rare that commissioners, owners, and unions agree on anything but there seems to be growing consensus that efforts at curbing marijuana use should be focused on addiction and rehabilitation rather than punitive measures. The NFL and NBA take it a step further as both league offices have suggested that they are ready to explore the science of using cannabis as a pain management tool for players rather than prescription opioids.
Prominent coaches from both leagues are in on the new wave. Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll has opined with the idea of players using cannabis over opioids. Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr has admitted to trying it recently after failed back surgery.
In 2018, Bleacher Report conducted lengthy and candid interviews with former professional athletes. Retired NBA and NFL players estimated that 80-90% of both leagues smoke on a regular basis. That’s far from a scientific survey, but you get the drift.
As an outsider looking in, if I had to sum up marijuana in professional sports right now I would use the word “ubiquitous”. So what will the future look like? Obviously the tipping point will be if and when the federal government legalizes and regulates the cannabis industry.
If the country continues at the same pace in the same direction over the next quarter-century, sports culture could seriously be impacted by the new laws. Players could be prescribed CBD’s, cannabis tycoons could own sports franchises, probably even corporate sponsorships similar to the relationships the leagues have with alcohol companies.
Who knows what the future holds. Maybe by 2044 “E-Sports” will garner Super Bowl numbers, and professional video gamers will chased around by paparazzi. Maybe President Miley Cyrus will be more focused on her foreign policy rather than domestic issues. Either way, America is moving forward on the issue and our professional sports leagues are clear examples of the changing times.
Pat Benson is a fixture at local high school sporting events. He has been a sideline reporter, P.A. announcer, and radio personality. Tweet him @Pat_Benson_Jr.