As we approach another Super Bowl, we mark another year of the NFL dragging its feet. Football long ago surpassed baseball as America’s pastime, and perhaps because of its success, perhaps because of its owners, or perhaps because of its conservative brand, the NFL continues to lag behind on common sense reforms. Whether it’s addressing the league’s sexual assault problem, preventing concussions, repairing its financially disastrous relationship with the armed forces, or changing its business model of gouging cities for new stadiums, the NFL is always slow to change its worst habits. Nowhere is this as obvious as with the NFL’s marijuana policy.
Currently, the NFL has draconian rules on the books punishing players for marijuana use. A positive drug test comes with stiff fines and suspensions. Penalties established in the ’80s during the biased and ineffective War on Drugs have largely stayed in place despite arguments to the contrary coming from all corners. Scientists say that marijuana has potential to ease potential neural damage. Players say that marijuana provides much needed pain relief with far lower stakes than opioid-based pain pills. Many states and municipalities where the players live and work have decriminalized or legalized marijuana. Their bottom line says that suspending Martavis Bryant and Josh Gordon is bad for business. And yet, the rules still remain on the books.
The current rules for marijuana use in the NFL are among the strictest in professional sports. Players are subject to suspension if they are found with more than 35 nanograms per milliliter of THC in their urine. This number is already higher than most other sports, and this is a relatively new threshold. It was only 15 mg/mL as recently as 2014. For comparison’s sake, the World Anti-Doping league employs a 150 mg/mL standard. In other sports, in medicine, and in culture, the tide is turning toward cannabis, and the NFL is lagging behind.
Other sports are moving in lockstep toward full legalization because the science has proven that marijuana is vital for athletes. Marijuana’s utility as a pain reliever is well-documented. A slew of studies are being conducted regarding marijuana’s potential as both a neuroprotectant and as a treatment for mood issues. Cannabis may have a future as a treatment for CTE, a brain damage issue that has plagued the NFL for decades. Universities, medical companies, and former players like Ricky Williams, Eugene Monroe, and Shaun Phillips have all come forward to fund this research.
Why then, is the NFL lagging so far behind? The players’ union (NFLPA) and other observers have a variety of opinions. All of them generally come back to two issues: The owners want to hold onto their power, and other old rich white owners have the bigoted attitudes of old rich white people. The owners have an incredible amount of power in the NFL due to the incredible amount of money they rake in. As a result, they have an outsized influence on policy in and around the league. This is why concussion research has been held up and even obstructed by NFL brass, and something as simple as drafting an openly gay player made national news while gay players have thrived in other sports. Ninety percent of political contributions from political contributions go to the Republican Party. This curmudgeonly businesslike attitude has also led them to view ending marijuana testing as a bargaining chip rather than as a boon to their employees.
Just as the the owners hew towards conservative viewpoints in other arenas, they fall blindly into right-wing orthodoxy when it comes to marijuana. Bleacher Report quoted one owner directly, saying off the record, “Most owners view marijuana as a destructive drug.” Given that beer companies are big business for NFL ad revenue, you have to conclude that these hang-ups come from the same place as the NFL’s inability to support Colin Kaepernick’s politics and its tone-deaf stance on domestic violence. The NFL brass lives in an antiquated and privileged world insulated by money and an old-boys mentality. While they may want to make America great again, they also are burying their heads in the sand when it comes to potential improvements in their business and in the world around them.
Marijuana should be decriminalized in the NFL because it is the right thing to do for the players. However, when discussing marijuana in the NFL it is important to think about how weed affects the NFL brand, because this is how the owners view it. What the NFL owners fail to see is that moving on marijuana wouldn’t just be good for players, it would be good for business. For some reason, the NFL is the most conservative, jingoistic, and even bigoted brand in professional sports. Many viewers watch despite the military displays and subtle racism towards Cam Newton. If the NFL isn’t going to dispense with the fighter jets and allowing Cam Newton to get hammered in the pocket while touching Tom Brady draws a flag, it could at least change its stance on cannabis. It would be a small step, but just as the league would do well by softening its stance to become pro-science and pro-woman, just as it could show a little less greed, a little chill on the ganja would go a long way.