On paper, the NFL and NBA’s marijuana policies are very similar, but the differences in how the two policies are enforced speak volumes about the difference of culture in the two leagues. Here are the facts about their cannabis policies:
Second infraction: $25,000 fine, no suspension
Third infraction: 5-game suspension
Fourth infraction: 10-game suspension (5 more games for each positive test thereafter)
Second infraction: 2-game fine (can play unpaid)
Third infraction: 4-game fine (can play unpaid)
Fourth infraction: 4-game suspension
Fifth infraction: 10-game suspension
These two disciplinary structures don’t look that different, right? Wrong. The difference becomes rather stark when you look at how this affects a player. The NBA plays an 82-game regular season while an NFL team plays 16 games before the playoffs. If an NBA player misses five games, they are only out 6 percent of their season. If an NFL player rides the pine thanks to smoking trees, they are could miss a quarter of their season. The NFL is about system more than it is about stars, and as Tony Romo found out the hard way this year, missing a couple games can change your whole career. The NBA’s drug policy is designed as a slap on the wrist, while the NFL’s policy is designed to threaten the livelihood of anyone who doesn’t tow the line.
Not only is the NFL punishment harsher in terms of how the players feel it, it also punishes more players. Heading into last season, only two NBA players were facing suspension due to marijuana, and of those two, only O.J. Mayo lost an entire season of play. At the same time, 11 players in the NFL were facing suspension, and five of them lost their whole season or close to it. This isn’t a blip on the radar, but a long-term trend. The NFL suspends far more players for substance abuse than the NBA. Though technically speaking NBA players can be tested more often in a season, more NFL players are getting suspended. Why is that?
Though the letter of the law is similar in the NBA and the NFL, the spirit is very different. NBA commissioner Adam Silver tries to downplay marijuana as a banned substance. In 2014, when asked about cannabis, he said, “We’re much more concerned about HGH testing … marijuana is something that’s collectively bargained with the players’ association, and we adjust with the times.” This tone strikes a sharp contrast with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who said that the NFL’s marijuana ban is “an NFL policy and we believe it’s the correct policy.” The two leagues have a very different attitude which stems from their very different cultures.
Though their collectively bargained rules might be similar, the cultural relationship between players and management is far different in the NFL than in the NBA. The NFL has a far more authoritarian attitude and a more conservative culture than the NBA, and this permeates everything it does. The attitude in the NFL is militaristic and putative compared to the NBA. While coaches and players speak out on political issues like Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump regularly in locker rooms and with their warm-up gear, Colin Kaepernick’s choice to get political was met with backbiting from NFL executives. A few New England Patriots choosing to skip their White House visit has also become a controversial news story. The NFL has even made a point to crack down on end zone celebrations in an attempt to enforce its conservative politics even on the game’s most jubilant moments.
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Tracing the origins of the different cultures in the NBA and the NFL would require a doctoral thesis-length treatise, but those differences are very real, and they are felt deeply by the players. The NFL has a more conservative culture, and as such it also has a culture marked by authoritarianism and even racism. While both leagues have a vast majority of white owners and coaches and a majority of black players, the NFL is more putative. When a power dynamic like this exists, you have to not only consider the relationship between managers and employers, but you must also consider that, more often than not, the relationship is between a white manager and a black worker. In 2014, Richard Sherman publicly applauded Adam Silver for his stance on racist comments made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling. When asked if he thought if Roger Goodell would have had a similar response, he said, “No, I don’t.”
It didn’t take long for Sherman to be proven right. Anyone who watches football will tell you that black quarterbacks are treated differently than white quarterbacks, especially when you consider Cam Newton, who has a mobile style of play traditionally associated with black QBs, while Tom Brady has a stationary style of play often associated with white QBs. Brady gets more calls than Newton, year in and year out. In 2015, wide receiver Brandon Marshall came out and said, “White players, specifically at the quarterback position, are treated differently.” When Cam Newton finally spoke to Goodell about the issue, all that was reported was that they “had a great discussion.” Some leadership.
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How do the NFL’s conservative, racist tendencies equate to its drug policy? While both leagues have similar policies, their enforcement is shaped by their culture. In the NBA, it is clear from the low number of suspensions and in the language of management that there is communication with and respect for players. Since some players estimate that 80 percent of players smoke marijuana, we can assume public punishment is just one of a number of fates that await players who test positive. The NFL, on the other hand, is quick to suspend its players, just as it is quick to fine them for twerking, and quick to throw them under the bus when they get political.
The ideal endpoint for both leagues is complete legalization of marijuana, but until that day comes, the NFL could start by re-evaluating its culture. Are their players subjects to be controlled or peers to be respected and collaborated with? No, the NBA is not perfect, but there is a level of self-awareness about the power dynamic in basketball that would be welcome in football. If the NFL isn’t yet ready to change the letter of the law, it could at least change the spirit.